Faith Born of Need
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).
The men and women to whom Jesus said in the Gospels, “Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace,” all had very definite needs that they trusted Jesus to relieve. One was sick, one was deaf, one was blind; and when they came to Jesus they were not merely convinced that He was in general a powerful healer, but each of them was convinced, more or less firmly, that He could heal his peculiar infirmity, and each of them sought healing in his own specific case. So it is with us today. It is not enough for us to know that Jesus is great and good; it is not enough for us to know that He was instrumental in the creation of the world and that He is now seated on the throne of all being. These things are indeed necessary to faith, but they are not all that is necessary; if we are to trust Jesus, we must come to Him personally and individually with some need of the soul which He alone can relieve. That need of the soul from which Jesus alone can save is sin.
How is it that Christ touches our lives? The answer which the Word of God gives to that question is perfectly specific and perfectly plain. 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 “as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”
The Cross of Christ is the special basis of Christian faith. On the cross the penalty of our sins was paid; it is as though we ourselves had died in fulfillment of the just curse of the law; the handwriting of ordinances that was against us was wiped out; and henceforth we have an entirely new life in the full favor of God. The greatest offence of all, perhaps, is the wondrous simplicity of the gospel, which is so different from the plans which we on our part had made. Like Naaman the Syrian we are surprised when our rich fees and our letters of introduction are spurned, when all our efforts to save ourselves by our own character or our own good works are counted as not of the slightest avail. Are not our own efforts to put into operation the “principles of Jesus,” or to “make Christ Master” by our own efforts in our lives, better than this strange message of the Cross? But like Naaman we may find, if we put away our pride, if we are willing to take God at His word, if we confess that His way is best, that our flesh, so foul with sin, may come again like the flesh of a little child and we may be clean.
Acceptance of the Lord Jesus Christ, as He is offered to us in the gospel of His redeeming work, is saving faith. Despairing of any salvation to be obtained by our own efforts, we simply trust in Him to save us; we say no longer, as we contemplate the Cross, merely “He saved others” or “He saved the world” or “He saved the church”; but we say, by the strange individualizing power of faith, “He loved me and gave Himself for me.” When a man once says that, in his heart and not merely with his lips, then no matter what his guilt may be, no matter how far he is beyond any human pale, no matter how little opportunity he has for making good the evil that he has done, he is a ransomed soul, a child of God forever.
Faith consists not in doing something but in receiving something. To say that we are justified by faith is just another way of saying that we are justified not in slightest measure by ourselves, but simply and solely by the One in whom our faith is reposed. At this point appears the profound reason for what at first sight might seem to be a surprising fact. Why is it that with regard to the attainment of salvation the New Testament assigns such an absolutely exclusive place to faith; why does it not also speak, for example, of our being justified by love? It is perfectly clear that Paul did not speak of salvation by love, but that he spoke instead of justification by faith. Surely the thing requires an explanation; and certainly it does not mean that the apostle was inclined to depreciate love. And why did not Jesus say: “Thy love hath saved thee, go in peace,” but rather: “Thy faith hath saved thee”? (Luke 7:50)
The answer to this question is really abundantly plain. The true reason why faith is given such an exclusive place by the New Testament, so far as the attainment of salvation is concerned, over against love and over against everything else in man, is that faith means receiving something, not doing something or even being something. To say, therefore, that our faith saves us means that we do not save ourselves even in the slightest measure, but that God saves us. The very center and core of the whole Bible is the doctrine of the grace of God — the grace of God which depends not one whit upon anything that is in man, but is absolutely undeserved, resistless and sovereign. Christian experience depends for its depth and for its power upon the way in which that blessed doctrine is cherished in the depths of the heart. The center of the Bible, and the center of Christianity, is found in the grace of God.
At bottom, faith is in one sense a very simple thing; it simply means that abandoning the vain effort of earning one’s way into God’s presence we accept the gift of salvation which Christ offers so full and free. The man who has been justified by God, the man who has accepted as a free gift the condition of rightness with God which Christ offers, is not a man who hopes that possibly, with due effort, if he does not fail, he may finally win through to become a child of God. But he is a man who has already become a child of God. If our being children of God depended in slightest measure upon us, we could never be sure that we had attained the high estate. But as a matter of fact it does not depend upon us; it depends only upon God. It is not a reward that we have earned but a gift that we have received.
In the New Testament, faith, as the reception of a free gift, is placed in sharpest contrast with any intrusion of human merit; it is natural to find that faith is sharply contrasted with works. The contrast is really implied by the New Testament throughout, and in one book, the Epistle to the Galatians, it forms the express subject of the argument. Paul is not merely arguing that a man is justified by faith — so much no doubt his opponents, the Judaizers, admitted — but he is arguing that a faith is justified by faith alone. What the Judaizers said was not that a man is justified by works, but that he is justified by faith and works — exactly the thing that is being taught by the Roman Catholic Church today. No doubt they admitted that it was necessary for a man to have faith in Christ in order to be saved. A man’s obedience to the law of God, they held, was not, indeed, sufficient for salvation, but it was necessary; and it became sufficient when it was supplemented by Christ.
Against this compromising solution of the problem, the Apostle insists upon a sharp alternative: a man may be saved by works (if he keeps the law perfectly), or he may be saved by faith; but he cannot possibly be saved by faith and works together. Christ, according to Paul, will do everything or nothing; if righteousness is in slightest measure obtained by our obedience to the law, then Christ died in vain; if we trust in slightest measure in our own good works, then we have turned away from grace and Christ profiteth us nothing.
To the world, that may seem to be a hard saying: but it is not a hard saying to the man who has ever known the weary effort at establishment of his own righteousness in the presence of God, and then has come to understand that Christ has done all. The man who has said with Toplady, “Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling” — that man knows that to trust Christ only for part is not to trust Him at all, that our own righteousness is insufficient even to bridge the smallest gap which might be left open between us and God, that there is no hope unless we can safely say to the Lord Jesus: “Thou must save, and Thou alone.”
That is the center of the Christian religion — the absolutely undeserved and sovereign grace of God, saving sinful men by the gift of Christ upon the cross. Condemnation comes by merit; salvation comes only by grace: condemnation is earned by man; salvation is given by God. Everywhere the basis of the New Testament is the same — the mysterious, incalculable, wondrous, grace of God. “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
The reception of that gift is faith; faith means not doing something but receiving something; it means not the earning of a reward but the acceptance of a gift. A man can never be said to obtain a thing for himself if he obtains it by faith; indeed to say that he obtains it by faith is only another way of saying that he does not obtain it for himself but permits another to obtain it for him. To say that we are saved by faith is to say that we do not save ourselves but are saved only by the one in whom our faith is reposed. Even we, weak and ignorant though we are, can see, I think, why faith was chosen instead of love, for example, as the channel by which salvation could enter into our lives. Even before we could love as we ought to love, even before we could do anything or feel anything aright, we were saved by faith; we were saved by abandoning all confidence in our own thoughts or feelings or actions and by simply allowing ourselves to be saved by God.
In one sense, indeed, we were saved by love. Yes, we were saved by love, but it was by a greater love than the love in our cold and sinful hearts; we were saved by love, but it was not our love for God but God’s love for us, God’s love for us by which he gave the Lord Jesus to die for us upon the cross. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:10). That love alone is the love that saves. And the means by which it saves is faith.