Evangelism and the OPC: Part 1, Machen's Evangelistic Identity

Eric B. Watkins

In the archives at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia is preserved a handwritten sermon by J. Gresham Machen dated March 30, 1925. It deals with 1 Timothy 3:15 and is entitled "The Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth." In this sermon, Machen argues that the church is not an end in itself, but an agency for the propagation of the gospel. In the margin, in different colored ink, are the words, "Dr. Vos says this is wrong." (Machen and Vos were colleagues at Princeton Seminary.) Perhaps Vos would have argued that the church's priority is not evangelism but worship, as worship is the eternal activity of heaven, and evangelism is the temporary activity of gathering worshipers on this side of eternity. It is undeniable that the right worship of God was and is a central concern for Orthodox Presbyterians. Still, the question remains: how important is evangelism for the OPC's identity? It could be argued that the OPC was established because of a concern for the propagation of the gospel. Evangelism is foundational to our church's identity.

At the heart of Machen's 1923 book, Christianity and Liberalism, is an evangelistic concern. He argued that a religious movement that is willing to deny the supernatural character of the Bible and the authoritative claims of Christianity could not be called truly Christian. Such preaching, whether by pastors or missionaries, would betray Christianity, not propagate it. In 1924, moderates within the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. fired back through the subtle but poisonous Auburn Affirmation. This document, signed by many church leaders, declared that fundamental doctrines of the faith were negotiable. In a 1925 sermon on Matthew 5:13, "The Separateness of the Church," Machen warned that the real attack on the gospel came not from fire and swords, nor from threats of bonds or death, but from friendly words. The deadliest poison, according to Machen, was that of merging the church gradually and peacefully with the world.

In spite of tireless warnings, Princeton was reorganized in 1929 under modernist control. The once bright-burning star of conservative Reformed orthodoxy was becoming little more than a smoldering candle. Machen and many others understood that a compromised seminary would produce compromised pastors and missionaries, and that compromised pastors and missionaries would preach a compromised gospel. Long ago, John Calvin bemoaned the lack of faithful preachers of the gospel, and warned of the dangers of merging the world and the church. As the reformation of the church in Europe birthed a ministerial training school in Geneva to which Calvin was called, so the reformation of the church in the 1920s led to the formation of Westminster Seminary in 1929, to which Machen was called. Still, preserving the theological integrity of the church and training faithful pastors and missionaries were only part of Machen's testimony.

Machen practiced what he preached, and preached what he practiced. As a younger man in World War I, Machen served in the YMCA and occasionally functioned as an itinerate preacher. After preaching a sermon in 1918, Machen wrote, "I talked a long time to one fellow in particular who has been going through agony of soul in his effort to find peace with God. It made me think of Pilgrim's Progress. Well, I never before knew what the preaching of the gospel is.... There was certainly very little of mine in the sermon. But the grace of God still finds an answer in the human heart."[1] The young Machen who "never before knew what the preaching of the gospel is" would learn it very well, and on more than one battlefield.

Machen spent the latter years of his life preaching the gospel and contending for its faithful proclamation. In a 1936 sermon at our Second General Assembly, Machen pleaded the evangelistic cause of the church: "What a privilege to carry the message of the cross, unshackled by compromising associations, to all the world! What a privilege to send it to foreign lands! What a privilege to proclaim it to the souls of people who sit in nominally Christian churches and starve for lack of the bread of life! Oh yes, what a privilege and what a joy, my brethren!"[2]

Machen learned the joyful privilege of preaching the gospel, but he also learned its cost. He was attacked from the front and the rear, yet remained undeterred. This is well captured by one of Machen's adversaries, the liberal missionary and prolific writer, Pearl Buck. In a tribute following Machen's death in 1937, she admitted, "I admired Dr. Machen very much while I disagreed with him on every point.... In a present world of dubious woven grays, his life was a flaming thread of scarlet, regardless and undismayed. He was afraid of nothing and of no one."[3]

On June 11, 1936, the eve of our denomination's formation, Machen sounded the church's evangelistic call: "With what lively hope does our gaze turn now to the future! At last true evangelism can go forward without the shackle of compromising associations. The fields are white to the harvest."[4] Though Machen died within a year, his evangelistic concerns did not die with him. The "flaming thread" of Machen's life is part of the fabric of each and every Orthodox Presbyterian church. Clothed for battle, we continue to fight the good fight of gospel proclamation with the sword of the Lord in hand. Our church was born of evangelistic concern. It is foundational to our identity. Proclaiming the gospel is second only to our concern for the right worship of God.


[1] Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir, 292 (OPC reprint, 249).

[2] J. Gresham Machen, "Constraining Love," in God Transcendent, ed. Stonehouse, 155.

[3] Buck, quoted in the Presbyterian Guardian, February 13, 1937, 187.

[4] Machen, quoted in Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen, 502 (OPC reprint, 445).

The author is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Saint Augustine, Fla.