Fifth Avenue

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Perhaps one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read from the pen of J. Gresham Machen, not widely known, written during World War I. Here he dissects his times, of which ours are just a continuation. Machen again proves himself profoundly prescient, a keen observer grounded in and speaking from the vantage point of the Scriptures:—

“During the past century a profound spiritual change has been produced in the whole thought and life of the world — no less a change than the substitution of paganism for Christianity as the dominant principle of life.” 

 

The Church in the War

In many cases the church has done nobly in the war. There have no doubt been many chaplains, many Y.M.C.A. secretaries, and many soldiers in the ranks who have proclaimed the gospel of Christ faithfully and humbly and effectively to dying men. Any discouraging estimate of the situation is subject to many noble exceptions. But, in general, in view of the manifest estrangement between the church and large bodies of men, there is at least some plausibility for the common opinion that the church has failed.

Fortunately, if the church has failed, it is at least perfectly clear why she has failed. She has failed because men have been unwilling to receive, and the church has been unwilling to preach, the gospel of Christ crucified. Men have trusted for their own salvation and for the hope of the world in the merit of their own self-sacrifice rather than in the one act of sacrifice which was accomplished some nineteen hundred years ago by Jesus Christ. That does not mean that men are opposed to Jesus. On the contrary, they are perfectly ready to admit Him into the noble company of those who have sacrificed themselves in a righteous cause. But such condescension is as far removed as possible from the Christian attitude. People used to say, “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.” They say so no longer. On the contrary, any man, if only he goes bravely over the top, is now regarded as plenty good enough to pay the price of sin.

Obviously this modern attitude is possible only because men have lost sight of the majesty of Jesus’ person. It is because they regard Him as a being altogether like themselves that they can compare their sacrifice with his. It never seems to dawn upon them that this was no sinful man, but the Lord of glory who died on Calvary. If it did dawn upon them, they would gladly confess, as men used to confess, that one drop of the precious blood of Jesus is worth more, as a ground for the hope of the world, than all the rivers of blood which have flowed upon the battlefields of France.

But how may this Christian conception of the majesty of Jesus’ person be regained?

Some people think it may be regained simply by more knowledge. If people would only read the gospels more, we are told, they would come to know Jesus, and, knowing him, they would revere him. But knowledge, important though it is, is not sufficient. Many men knew Jesus in the days of his flesh — intelligent men, too — who never became His disciples. Who then were those who did come to reverence Him? The answer is plain. During the earthly life-time of Jesus and all through the centuries the men who really understood the majesty of Jesus’ person were the men who were convicted of their sin. Peter was one — who said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” The dying thief was another; he knows more about Jesus to-day than many a modem preacher who has the name of Jesus forever on his lips. Paul was another — a brave, clean man he was, too, as the world looks on it, even before he found forgiveness in Christ. The real reason why men no longer understand the majesty of Jesus’ person is that they do not contrast his holiness with their own sinfulness; they are without the conviction of sin.

The leading characteristic of the present age is a profound satisfaction with human goodness. The popular war-literature, for example, is redolent of such satisfaction. Get beneath the rough exterior of men, we are told, and you find sufficient self- sacrifice in order to found upon that self-sacrifice the hope of the world.

What has produced such a spirit of self-satisfaction?

In the first place, the war has provided us with a convenient scapegoat. In war-time, men have been interested in the sins of others; they have been called upon to fight in hot indignation against injustice and oppression on the part of the Germans. Such indignation has been necessary. But it has not been without its moral dangers. In attending to the sins of others, men have sometimes lost sight of their own sins.

In the second place, the sense of sin has sometimes been blunted by the consciousness of a great achievement. Certainly the achievement is very great; the men who march in triumph up Fifth Avenue deserve not less but more of honor than they are receiving from their fellow-citizens. But honor from men can be received with perfect satisfaction only where it is joined, as it is joined in the case of many and many a Christian soldier, with utter humility in the presence of God.

But the roots of modern self-satisfaction lie far deeper than the war. During the past century a profound spiritual change has been produced in the whole thought and life of the world — no less a change than the substitution of paganism for Christianity as the dominant principle of life. We are not here using “paganism” as a term of reproach; ancient Greece was pagan, but it was glorious. What we mean by “paganism” is a view of life which finds its ideal simply in a healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties. Such an ideal is the exact opposite of Christianity, which is the religion of the broken heart.

We would not be misunderstood. In saying that Christianity is the religion of the broken heart, we do not mean that Christianity ends in the broken heart; we do not mean that the characteristic Christian attitude is a continual beating of the breast and a continual crying of “Woe is me.” On the contrary, the Christian should not be always “laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works”; sin is dealt with once for all, and then a new and joyous life follows. There is thus in Christianity a higher humanism. The trouble with the humanism of ancient Greece, as with the humanism of modem times, lay not in the superstructure, which was glorious, but in the foundation, which was rotten. Sin was never really dealt with and removed; there was always something to cover up. In the higher Christian humanism there is nothing to cover up; the guilt has been removed once for all by God, and the Christian may now proceed without fear to develop every faculty which God has given him.

But if Christianity does not end with the broken heart, it does begin with it. The way to Christ lies through the conviction of sin.

Unfortunately, the fact is not always recognized. Modern preachers are inclined to suggest some easier way. They are saying to men in effect this: “You men are very good and very self- sacrificing, and we take pleasure in revealing your goodness to you. Now, since you are so good, you will probably be interested in Christianity, especially in the life of Jesus, which we believe is good enough even for you.” Such preaching is very attractive — much more attractive than the preaching of the cross. But it is quite useless. It is useless to try to call the righteous to repentance.

But it is hard for men to give up their pride. How shall we find the courage to require it of them? How shall we preachers find courage to say, for example, to the returning soldiers, rightly conscious as they are of a magnificent achievement: “You are sinners like all other men, and like all other men you need a Saviour.” It looks to the world like a colossal piece of impertinence. Certainly we cannot find the courage in any superior goodness of our own. But we can find the courage in the good¬ness and in the greatness of Christ.

Certainly the gospel does put a tremendous strain upon Jesus of Nazareth. The gospel means that instead of seeking the hope of the world in the added deeds of goodness of the millions of the human race throughout the centuries, we seek it in one act of one Man of long ago. Such a message has always seemed foolish to the wise men of this world. But there is no real reason to be ashamed of it. We may feel quite safe in relinquishing every prop of human goodness in order to trust ourselves simply and solely to Christ. The achievements of men are very imposing. But not in comparison with the Lord of glory.

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

[The above message by Dr. Machen was delivered before Princeton alumni on 6 May 1919 and subsequently published in The Presbyterian, 29 May 1919.]

Words to Live By:
“The way to Christ lies through the conviction of sin.”

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