by J. Gresham Machen
Machen (1881-1937) was Professor of New Testament, first at Princeton Theological Seminary, and afterwards at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. Excerpts from What is Faith? (1925).
It is impossible to have faith in a person without having knowledge of the person. In the classic treatment of faith in the Epistle to the Hebrews, there is a verse that goes to the very root of the matter. “He that cometh to God,” the author says, “must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Religion is here made to depend absolutely upon doctrine; the one who comes to God must not only believe in a person, but he must also believe that something is true; faith is here declared to involve acceptance of a proposition. It is impossible, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, to have faith in a person without accepting with the mind the facts about the person.
Confidence in a person is more than intellectual assent to a series of propositions about the person, but it always involves those propositions, and becomes impossible the moment they are denied. It is quite impossible to trust a person about whom one assents to propositions that make the person untrustworthy, or fails to assent to propositions that make him trustworthy. Assent to certain propositions is not the whole of faith, but it is an absolutely necessary element in faith. So assent to certain propositions about God is not all of faith in God, but it is necessary to faith in God; and Christian faith, in particular, though it is more than assent to a creed, is absolutely impossible without assent to a creed. One cannot trust a God whom one holds with the mind to be either non-existent or untrustworthy.
According to the New Testament, communion with God or faith in God is dependent upon the doctrine of his existence. But it is dependent upon other doctrines in addition to that. “He that cometh to God,” says the Epistle to the Hebrews, “must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” In this latter part of the sentence, we have, expressed in a concrete way, the great truth of the personality of God. What we have is a presentation of what the Bible elsewhere calls the “living” God. God not only exists, but is a free Person who can act. The same truth appears with even greater clearness in the third verse of the same great chapter. “Through faith we understand,” says the author, “that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” Here we have, expressed with a clearness that leaves nothing to be desired, the doctrine of creation out of nothing, and that doctrine is said to be received by faith. It is the same doctrine that appears in the first verse of the Bible, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” and that really is presupposed in the Bible from beginning to the end.
Certain things, according to the Bible, are known about God, and without these things there can be no faith. The Bible teaches plainly that God has given to man a faculty of reason which is capable of apprehending truth, even truth about God. That does not mean that we finite creatures can find out God by our own searching; but it does mean that God has made us capable of receiving the information which He chooses to give. I cannot evolve an account of China out of my own inner consciousness, but I am perfectly capable of understanding the account which comes to me from travelers who have been there themselves. So our reason is certainly insufficient to tell us about God unless He reveals Himself; but it is capable (or would be capable if it were not clouded by sin) of receiving revelation when once it is given. The knowledge that God has graciously given us of Himself is the basis of our confidence in Him; the God of the Bible is One whom it is reasonable to trust.
How then may we attain to this knowledge of God that is so necessary to faith; how may we become acquainted with Him? God is known through the Bible. It presents God in loving action, in the course of history, for the salvation of sinful men. From Genesis to Revelation, from Eden to Calvary, as the covenant God of Israel and as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, all through the varied course of Bible story, God appears in the fulfillment of one loving plan. We see various aspects of His person; He appears in anger as well as in love. But it is plainly the same Person throughout: we rise from the Bible — I think we can say it without irreverence — with a knowledge of the character of God. There is a real analogy here to our relation with an earthly friend. How do we come to know one another? Not all at once, but by years of observation of one another’s actions. We have seen a friend in time of danger, and he has been brave; we have gone to him in perplexity, and he has been wise; we have had recourse to him in time of trouble, and he has given us his sympathy. So gradually, with the years, on the basis of many, many such experiences, we have come to love him and revere him. So it is, somewhat, with the knowledge of God that we obtain from the Bible. In the Bible we see God in action; we see Him in fiery indignation wiping out the foulness of Sodom; we see Him leading Israel like a flock; we see Him giving His only begotten Son for the sins of the world. And by what we see we learn to know Him.
Redemption was accomplished, 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. It is Christ, therefore, very naturally, who is ordinarily represented as the object of faith. In the case of our relation to Jesus, we are committing to Him the most precious thing that we possess — our own immortal souls. It is a stupendous act of trust. And it can be justified only by an appeal to facts.
The facts which justify our appeal to Jesus concern not only His goodness but also His power. We might be convinced of His goodness, and yet not trust Him with those eternal concerns of the soul. He might have the will to help and not the power. We might be in the position of the ship-captain’s child in the touching story, who, when all on shipboard were in terror because of an awful storm, learned that his father was on the bridge and went peacefully to sleep. The confidence of the child very probably was misplaced; but it was misplaced not because the captain was not faithful and good, but because the best of men has no power to command the wind and the sea that they should obey him. Is our confidence in Jesus equally misplaced? It is misplaced if Jesus was the poor, weak enthusiast that He is represented as being by those who regard Him simply as a Jewish teacher. But very different is the case if He was the Person presented in the Word of God.
It is one thing to hold that the ethical principles which Jesus enunciated will solve the problems of society, and quite a different thing to trust Him as the eternal Son of God, come voluntarily to earth for our redemption, now risen from the dead and holding communion with those who commit their lives to Him. A man can admire General Washington, for example, and accept the principles of his life; yet one cannot be said to trust him, for the simple reason that he died over a hundred years ago. His soldiers could trust him: for in their day he was alive; but we cannot trust him, because now he is dead.
But the words of Jesus that are recorded in the New Testament make it abundantly plain that the gospel which Jesus proclaimed was, at its very center, a gospel about Him; it did far more than set forth a way of approach to God which Jesus Himself followed, for it presented Jesus as Himself the way. According to the New Testament our Lord presented Himself not merely as Teacher and Example and Leader but also, and primarily, as Savior; He offered Himself to sinful men as One who alone could give them entrance into the Kingdom of God. “The Son of Man,” He said, “came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He invited men not merely to have faith in God like the faith which He had in God, but He invited them to have faith in Him. He clearly regarded Himself as Messiah, not in some lower meaning of the word, but as the heavenly Son of Man who was to come with the clouds of heaven and be the instrument in judging the world.
According to a very widespread way of thinking Jesus was the Founder of the Christian religion because He was the first to live the Christian life, in other words because He was Himself the first Christian. But Jesus stands in a far more fundamental relation to Christianity than that; He was the Founder of our religion not because He was the first Christian, but because He made Christianity possible by His redeeming work. Christianity is a way of getting rid of sin. Our trouble is that our lives do not seem to be like the life of Jesus. Unlike Jesus, we are sinners, and hence, unlike Him, we become Christians; we are sinners, and hence we accept with thankfulness the redeeming love of the Lord Jesus Christ, who had pity on us and made us right with God, through no merit of our own, by His atoning death.
The Lord Jesus, then, came into this world not primarily to say something, not even to be something, but to do something; He came not merely to lead men through His example out into a “larger life,” but to give life, through His death and resurrection, to those who were dead in trespasses and sins; we are Christians not because we have faith in God like the faith in God which Jesus Himself had, but because we have faith in Him.
One fearful doubt, however, still assails us. It comes from the nothingness of human life, the thought of the infinite abyss which is all about us as we walk upon this earth. It cannot be denied that man is imprisoned on one of the smaller of the planets, that he is enveloped by infinity on all sides, and that he lives but for a day in what seems to be a pitiless procession. The things in which he is interested, the whole of his world, form but an imperceptible oasis in the desert of immensity. It cannot be denied: man is a finite creature. From one point of view he is very much like the beasts that perish.
But that is not the whole truth. Man is not only finite: for he knows that he is finite, and that knowledge brings him into connection with infinity. He lives in a finite world, but he knows, at least, that it is not the totality of things. He lives in a procession of phenomena, but he cannot help searching for a first cause; in the midst of his trivial life, there rises in his mind the thought of God, an inscrutable power. In the presence of it man is helpless, but more unhappy — unhappy because of fear. With what assurance can we meet the infinite power? Its works in nature, despite all nature’s beauty, are horrible in the infliction of suffering. And what if physical suffering should not be all; what of the sense of guilt; what if the condemnation of conscience should be but the foretaste of judgment; what if contact with the infinite should be contact with a dreadful infinity of holiness; what if the inscrutable cause of all things should be, after all, a righteous God?
Can Jesus help us? Make Him as great as you will, and still He may seem to be insufficient. Extend the domains of His power far beyond our ken, and still there may seem to be a shelving brink with the infinite beyond. And still we are subject to fear. The mysterious power that explains the world still, we say, will sweep in and overwhelm us and our Savior alike. We are of all men most miserable; we had trusted in Christ; He carried us a little on our way, and then left us, helpless as before, on the brink of eternity. There is for us no hope; we stand defenseless at length in the presence of unfathomed mystery, unless our Savior were Himself the eternal God.
Then comes the full, rich consolation of God’s Word — the mysterious sentence in Philippians: “who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God” (Philippians 2:6); the strange cosmology of Colossians: “who is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of every creature: for by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist” (Colossians 1:15-17); the majestic prologue of the Fourth Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1); the mysterious consciousness of Jesus: “All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father: neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him” (Matthew 11:27).
These things have been despised as idle speculation, but in reality they are the very breath of our Christian lives. They are, indeed, the battle ground of theologians; the church hurled anathemas at those who held that Christ, though great, was less than God. But those anathemas were beneficent and right. That difference of opinion was no trifle; there is no such thing as “almost God.” The next thing less than the infinite is infinitely less. If Christ be the greatest of infinite creatures, then still our hearts are restless, still we are mere seekers. But now is Christ, our Savior (the One who says, “Thy sins are forgiven thee”), revealed as God. There is now for us no awful Beyond of mystery and fear. We cannot, indeed, explain the world; to us it is all unknown, but it contains no mysteries for our Savior; He is on the throne; He is at the center; He is ground and explanation of all things; He pervades the remotest bounds; by Him all things consist. The world is full of dread, mysterious powers; they touch us already in a thousand woes. But from all of them we are safe. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)