What Machen Meant

Brian L. De Jong

Shortly before his death on January 1, 1937, Dr. J. Gresham Machen dictated a final telegram to his friend and colleague, Professor John Murray. The words of the telegram were short and sweet: "I'm so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it." That memorable message has been passed down through the generations and continues to inspire no small admiration for this great man. Yet how many of us can honestly say that we understand what Dr. Machen meant by his parting statement?

I must admit that I did not grasp the full import of Dr. Machen's declaration until just recently. In reading a collection of sermons and writings by Dr. Machen entitled God Transcendent, I ran across the manuscript of a radio address given less than two weeks before his death. The title of the manuscript was "The Active Obedience of Christ." In this radio address, I found the key to unlock the meaning of the telegram. Nowhere else have I encountered such clear thinking about the importance and value of the active obedience of Christ. It seems to me that Dr. Machen still has much to teach the members, ministerial candidates, ruling elders, deacons, and pastors in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

When Dr. Machen talked about the active obedience of Christ, he was speaking of the entire and thoroughgoing obedience of Christ to the commands, laws, decrees, and ordinances of his heavenly Father. In short, Jesus obeyed the entire law of God in every respect, doing all that God required. As Scripture reminds us, Jesus Christ fulfilled all righteousness, and did everything that his Father had given him to do.

Dr. Machen was also quick to point out that Christ's active obedience to the will of God is inseparable from his passive obedience. Christ's passive obedience consists of his suffering all the just penalties due to the elect for their sins. He endured all the punishment that we deserved, drinking the cup of God's judgment down to the dregs—draining it to the last bitter drop. Dr. Machen likewise emphasized that although the active obedience and the passive sufferings can be distinguished from one another, they must never be separated. They are inextricably interwoven. The cross of Christ, for instance, is simultaneously the ultimate suffering that Christ endured and the greatest act of obedience that he performed. You can't have one without the other, and should never attempt to separate the two.

With that background in mind, we can begin to appreciate why Dr. Machen was so thankful for the active obedience of Christ, and why that concept brought him such comfort in the hour of death. One important point that Dr. Machen makes in his radio address is this: "If Christ had merely paid the penalty of sin for us and had done nothing more we should be at best back in the situation in which Adam found himself when God placed him under the covenant of works." In other words, if Christ only paid the penalty for our sins through his passive sufferings, then we are merely transported back to the Garden of Eden.

Dr. Machen went on to develop his point:

That covenant of works was a probation. If Adam kept the law of God for a certain period, he was to have eternal life. If he disobeyed he was to have death. Well, he disobeyed, and the penalty of death was inflicted upon him and his posterity. Then Christ by His death on the cross paid that penalty for those whom God had chosen.

Well and good. But if that were all that Christ did for us, do you not see that we should be back in just the situation in which Adam was before he sinned? The penalty of his sinning would have been removed from us because it had all been paid by Christ. But for the future the attainment of eternal life would have been dependent upon our perfect obedience to the law of God. We should simply have been back in the probation again.

Here we begin to understand why Jesus' passive obedience is not enough—if divorced from his active obedience. The passive sufferings of Christ discharge the enormous debt we owe, due to our sins and the sin of Adam. In effect, Jesus' passive obedience alone would bring our account from hopelessly overdrawn back to a zero balance—our debt would be retired. But having our debt retired and our sins forgiven does not get us into heaven; it simply returns us to the starting point. More must be done if we are to gain heaven. Righteousness must be completely fulfilled, either by us or by a representative acting on our behalf.

At this point, Dr. Machen understood that to enjoy the results of Jesus' passive obedience alone (if such were even possible) would actually leave us in a worse condition than Adam originally experienced. Dr. Machen said this:

Moreover, we should have been back in that probation in a very much less hopeful way than that in which Adam was originally placed in it. Everything was in Adam's favour when he was placed in the probation. He had been created in knowledge, righteousness and holiness. He had been created positively good. Yet despite all that, he fell. How much more likely would we be to fall—nay, how certain to fall—if all that Christ had done for us were merely to remove from us the guilt of past sin, leaving it then to our own efforts to win the reward which God has pronounced upon perfect obedience!

So although we would have been transported back to Eden again, the effects of the Fall would not have been entirely reversed. We would have been put into a probationary situation with far worse prospects than Adam faced. And if Adam, endowed with original righteousness, holiness, and knowledge, was liable to fall, how much more certainly would we fail the test. Therefore, to possess only Jesus' passive sufferings leads to a rather hopeless scenario: we're reassigned to take a test that we are guaranteed to fail. We will never get to heaven if we are forced to rely on our own active obedience to God's righteous demands.

On the other hand, if Jesus passively suffered for our sins and actively obeyed all of God's righteous requirements on our behalf, then heaven is absolutely guaranteed to us. And this is why Dr. Machen's understanding of the complete obedience of Christ—especially his active obedience—filled him with such joyful confidence. He said in the radio address:

That is the reason why those who have been saved by the Lord Jesus Christ are in a far more blessed condition than was Adam before he fell. Adam before he fell was righteous in the sight of God, but he was still under the possibility of becoming unrighteous. Those who have been saved by the Lord Jesus Christ not only are righteous in the sight of God but they are beyond the possibility of becoming unrighteous. In their case, the probation is over. It is not over because they have stood it successfully. It is not over because they have themselves earned the reward of assured blessedness which God promised on condition of perfect obedience. But it is over because Christ has stood it for them; it is over because Christ has merited for them the reward by His perfect obedience to God's law.

Do you see? Christ has passed the test. He has earned the reward. Heaven has been secured by his perfect obedience to God's law. And he did not do all this for himself—as if he needed to earn heaven for himself. He did all this for his people—even for you, O believer! On your behalf, he actively obeyed, thereby saving you and placing you beyond the possibility of ever becoming unrighteous again. Your status is secured eternally—what a great hope!

So when you comprehend the full obedience of Jesus Christ—both active and passive—you understand why Dr. Machen had such great hope as he lay upon his deathbed. In his own words, "How gloriously complete is the salvation wrought for us by Christ! Christ paid the penalty, and He merited the reward. Those are the two great things that He has done for us." No hope without it! Complete hope with it!

The author is pastor of Grace OPC in Sheboygan, Wis. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2006.

New Horizons: June 2006

The OPC after Seventy Years

Also in this issue

The OPC's Heritage after Seventy Years

My OPC Upbringing

Threescore and Ten: The OPC at Seventy

Coming In from the Outside

Communion with the Father in Love

Our Struggle to Establish Presbyterianism

Helps for Worship #9: Psalms and Hymns (Part 1)

Download PDFDownload ePubArchive


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church