This is the tenth (and last) in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was an epic battle for the gospel going on in North America. When I say, “the gospel,” I really do mean the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ alone. Theological liberalism was assaulting churches that had once stood firm for the biblical faith, churches such as the Presbyterian Church in the USA. Among other things, liberalism was denying the inerrancy of the Scriptures, miracles such as the virginal conception and physical resurrection of Christ, and the need for penal substitutionary atonement. God raised up powerful prophetic voices to protest. Amongst them towered J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937).
Machen is best known for his 1923 book Christianity & Liberalism. Machen deftly argued that liberalism was not biblical Christianity — the book is still relevant for our day, only the names have changed. At one time a professor of New Testament at the storied Princeton Seminary, Machen ran afoul of the powers that be and became a leading figure in the establishment of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. His continuing battle against liberalism also led to his being defrocked in the Presbyterian Church in 1935. The following year, Machen was at the fore of forming a new church: the Presbyterian Church of America. This church would later become known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
In late 1936, Machen was 55 years old. He had long been an avid walker and mountain climber, but that winter saw him in poor health. Despite a nasty cough and cold, Machen headed west to North Dakota to speak for some churches during the Christmas break at Westminster Seminary . His health rapidly deteriorated over the course of his time of his time on the prairies. Before long, he was in the hospital in Bismarck with pneumonia. On January 1, 1937, Machen was slipping in and out of consciousness. During one of his lucid moments, he dictated a brief telegram to his friend Prof. John Murray back at Westminster. The telegram was brief: “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” Those were his final recorded words — he died around 7:30 PM on New Year’s Day, 1937.
Christianity & Liberalism may be top of the heap in Machen’s literary legacy, but his final telegram definitely contains his most quoted words. They bear a closer look. What did Machen mean by “the active obedience of Christ” and why was it so encouraging to him? Sinful human beings have a two-fold problem. First, because of our sin we have an infinite debt to God’s justice that we cannot repay. Second, even if our debt were paid, we would still be confronted with the ongoing demand of God’s law for our consistent obedience going forward. Jesus Christ addresses both. With his suffering God’s wrath in our place, he has paid our infinite debt. In theology, we call that his passive (suffering) obedience. With his 33 years of perfect law-keeping, Christ has also obtained for us perfect obedience to God’s law. We call that his active obedience. His righteous life is imputed or credited to us — as the Belgic Confession puts it in article 23, “…his obedience is ours when we believe in him.”
Romans 5:19 speaks directly of this gospel truth: “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” The Holy Spirit points to two men. One, Adam, was disobedient and his guilt-laden failure has been imputed to his descendants. The other, Jesus Christ, was obedient, and his righteous accomplishments have been imputed to believers for their justification. When we have Christ as our Saviour, we not only have forgiveness of all our sins, but also positive righteousness in the eyes of God. On the basis of both, God declares that we are right with him. He views us as forgiven AND perfectly obedient.
This gospel teaching was fresh in Machen’s mind as he was dying because a couple of weeks earlier he had done a radio broadcast on it. Prior to that, he had been discussing it with John Murray at the seminary. As he knew he was dying, he looked, not to his imperfect life of following Christ, but to Christ’s perfect life lived for him. Machen found comfort in knowing he would appear before God’s throne clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. His account was not only cleared of all debt, but filled to overflowing with the imputed merits of Christ. You can see why Machen finished with “No hope without it.” We can even flip it around: “The active obedience of Christ: much hope with it!”