Salvation by God at the Cross of Christ: A Reflection on Chapter 6 of Christianity and Liberalism (Part 1)


Understanding salvation requires a picture of the world, its purpose, and ultimately its Creator, Savior, and Judge. For this reason, J. Gresham Machen discusses salvation only after the other foundational doctrines in Christianity and Liberalism.[1] In the first chapters he established the divergence between the Christian faith and modern theological liberalism regarding God, humanity, the Bible, and Christ. Machen then turns to the gospel, the way of salvation, in order to demonstrate their opposing concepts of humanity’s plight and reconciliation. He presents a theocentric vision of salvation that proclaims sin in its fullness and centers the cross of Jesus as the Triune God’s act in history to bring gracious redemption. The Christian faith and theological liberalism diverge on the need of salvation, the basis of salvation, the means of securing salvation, and the new reality brought about by the saving activity. Most fundamentally, “Liberalism finds salvation (so far as it is willing to speak at all of “salvation”) in man; Christianity finds it in an act of God.”[2] Machen will show us how orthodoxy Christianity and theological liberalism present difference accounts of atonement, sin, the character of God, and the instrument of salvation.

1. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, New Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009).

2. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 99.

The parting of ways on salvation secures Machen’s thesis that, in fact and by honest assessment, Christianity and theological liberalism are different religions: “Despite the liberal use of traditional phraseology modern liberalism not only is a different religion from Christianity but belongs in a totally different class of religions.”[3] Each religious tradition presents some sort of problem-solution schema of the world. Something has gone terribly wrong; human existence is not as it is supposed to be. Theological liberalism presents not merely a sub-Christian view of salvation but a different conception of it entirely, which depends on and elevates humanity rather than God. Machen sharply contrasts the liberal view of salvation, Christ as example, with Christ as vicarious sufferer in the mode of legal penal substitution. Far from being an arcane and “subtle” theory, substitutionary atonement “is itself so simple that a child can understand it. ‘We deserved eternal death, but the Lord Jesus, because He loved us, died instead of us on the cross’”[4] This is the gospel.

3. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 6.

4. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 100.

Different Accounts of Atonement and Sin

Machen presents the modern liberal atonement theories in contradistinction from the Reformation view. Fundamentally, liberal theologians posit a subjective effect of the death of Christ on the human being rather than and objective accomplishment that alters the relation of the sinner to God. Broadly conceived, the liberal views of the atonement addressed by Machen fall under the category of moral influence theories or exemplarism. “The essence of it is that the death of Christ had an effect not upon God but only upon man.”[5] Machen delineates three varieties of these modern theories of Christ’s death, each of which attribute an exclusively revelatory effect to the cross of Christ.

5. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 100.
  1. The cross reveals the ultimate “example of self-sacrifice of us to emulate”
  2. The cross reveals God’s hatred of sin therefore motivating us to do so as well
  3. The cross reveals God’s love for us.[6]
6. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 100.

Machen acknowledges that each of these points have some basis in biblical truth, but they do not address the underlying plight of the human person before the Holy God nor account for human inability because of sin. Such atonement theories portray the problem between God and humanity as one of knowledge rather than iniquity.

The heart of the division between Christianity and theological liberalism regarding atonement is different ideas of sin. As Machen explains in his chapter on Christ,

Without the conviction of sin there can be no appreciation of the uniqueness of Jesus; it is only when we contrast our sinfulness with His holiness that we appreciate the gulf which separates Him from the rest of the children of men. And without the conviction of sin there can be no understanding of the occasion for the supernatural act of God; without the conviction of sin, the good news of redemption seems to be an idle tale.[7]

7. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 90.

Early-twentieth century liberalism, across the whole spectrum, maintained the idea of fundamental human goodness and inevitable progress through human will and action. Sin was recast in a utilitarian form as that which adversely effects human flourishing, with the Godward direction of sin minimized or rejected. For this reason, the traditional Protestant concepts of guilt, justification, and Christ’s substitutionary death were overturned. As Machen notes, “[Theological liberals] err in that they ignore the dreadful reality of guilt, and make a mere persuasion of the human will all that is needed for salvation.”[8] Under the liberal schema, humanity’s problem was ignorance and not condemnation; therefore, the solution of the cross was reimagined.

8. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 101.

On the various subjective atonement theories presented by liberal theologians, the revelatory aspects of the cross float in the air, lacking grounding in history or theological truth.

But they [the revelatory aspects of the cross] are swallowed up in a far greater truth—that Christ died instead of us to present us faultless before the throne of God. Without that central truth, all the rest is devoid of real meaning: an example of self-sacrifice is useless to those who are under both the guilt and thralldom of sin; the knowledge of God’s hatred of sin can in itself bring only despair; an exhibition of the love of God is a mere display unless there was some underlying reason for the sacrifice.[9]

9. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 101.

In rejecting these views, Machen has Harry Emerson Fosdick’s controversial sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” firmly in sight. He quotes Fosdick’s repudiation of penal substitution as an example of this point: “They speak with disgust of those who believe ‘that the blood of our Lord, shed in a substitutionary death, placates an alienated Deity and makes possible welcome for the returning sinner.’”[10] Fosdick, however, is not the only, or even the main, target of Machen’s criticism but a leading example of what he sees as the theological drift of the Church from the faith of the Bible.[11]

10. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 101. Citing Harry Emerson Fosdick, “Shall the Fundamentalists, Win?,” stenographically reported by Margaret Renton, 1922, 5.

11. D. G. Hart, “For Machen, Fosdick Was a Small Part of the Problem,” Reformed Faith & Practice 7, no. 1 (2022): 20–24.

Different Accounts of the Character of God

Machen addresses two specific critiques of Christ’s death as a vicarious sacrifice: (1) how can one suffer for another and (2) what does this communicate about the character of God. Regarding the first, he writes, “modern liberalism has still more specific objections to the Christian doctrine of the cross. How can one person, it is asked, suffer for the sins of another? The thing, we are told, is absurd. Guilt, it is said, is personal; if I allow another man to suffer for my fault, my guilt is not thereby one whit diminished.”[12] But, Machen maintains, the death of Christ is not like this. Christ’s death was unique because his person is unique, as the God-man. “It is perfectly true that the Christ of modern naturalistic reconstruction never could have suffered for the sins of others; but it is very different in the case of the Lord of Glory.”[13] Christ died not merely as a righteous man; the divine person of Christ lends his death infinite value.

12. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 106.

13. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 108.

The second objection presented against vicarious atonement is grounded in the character of God. Liberal theology argues that the view of God demanding a sacrifice or enacting punishment for sin is retrograde, legalistic, and unloving. The liberal theologians of the 1920s quickly brushed away concepts such as violating God’s law or the demands of justice as mere “legalistic” or “political” notions. As Machen summarizes this critique:

What a degraded view of God it is, the modern liberal exclaims, when God is represented as being “alienated” from man, and as waiting coldly until a price be paid before He grants salvation! In reality, we are told, God is more willing to forgive sin than we are willing to be forgiven; reconciliation, therefore, can have to do only with man; it all depends upon us; God will receive us any time we choose.[14]

14. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 109.

Machen sees the fundamental failure in this objection as the reimagining of sin discussed above. Despite the claims of some liberals, sin could not be address by mere human repentance without Christ’s sacrifice; this repentance does not deal with either the fallout of sin or the demands of divine justice.

The liberal theologian asks, “What of God’s love…How can this god of wrath and justice be squared with Jesus?” Machen replies, “Modern liberal teachers are never tired of ringing the changes upon this objection. They speak with horror of the doctrine of an ‘alienated’ or an ‘angry’ God.”[15] Machen’s answer is this: God’s love and justice, and even his wrath, unite precisely in the cross of Christ. Machen points out that Jesus himself speaks of God’s wrath considerably in the New Testament. Christ comes so that God’s love and grace may be granted in a just manner with God’s righteous wrath propitiated. “The truth is that the modern rejection of the doctrine of God’s wrath proceeds from a light view of sin which is totally at variance with the teaching of the whole New Testament and of Jesus himself.”[16] It is only the liberal image of Christ as mere moral teacher and mere example of modern values that conflicts with the full understanding of the nature of the Triune God.

15. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 111.

16. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 111.

Not only is the objection of the incompatibility of God’s love and the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross incompatible with the Jesus revealed in the New Testament and confessed by the Church throughout the ages, but it also misrepresents the doctrine. “The modern liberal teachers persist in speaking of the sacrifice of Christ as though it were a sacrifice made by someone other than God. They speak of it as though it meant that God waits coldly until a price is paid to Him before He forgives sin.”[17] Since Christ is the eternal Son of God sent by the Father to accomplish salvation in the Spirit, a view of God as coldly waiting for humanity to get its act together is absurd. The Holy God is the offended Creator and Judge, who himself initiates, accomplishes, and applies salvation by grace. “The fundamental thing is that God Himself, and not another, makes the sacrifice for sin—God Himself in the person of the Son who assumed our nature and died for us, God Himself in the Person of the Father who spared not His own Son but offered Him up for us all.”[18] In this we can observe Machen’s self-conscious Trinitarian framing of the atonement against liberalism’s functional or explicit Unitarianism.

17. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 111.

18. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 111–12.

What is actually needed, Machen declares, is the costly love of the cross. The love of God as presented by liberal theology is ultimately sentimentality based on human optimism and self-delusion. Rather than eliciting joy for God and salvation, the modern concept renders Him boring and unimportant. “The truth is, the God of modern preaching, though He may perhaps be very good, is rather uninteresting. Nothing is so insipid as indiscriminate good humor. Is that really love that costs so little? If God will necessarily forgive, no matter what we do, why trouble ourselves about Him at all?”[19] Additionally, where does this conception of God of exclusive love come from? Certainly not from nature, nor from Jesus, nor the rest of the New Testament (where God’s love is always combined with his holiness), nor from the general history of philosophy or the general sense of human religiosity. Look to all of these, and you will not find the saccharine God of theological liberalism. This domestication of God was motivated by an impulse to retain the young people in churches. Fosdick makes such an appeal in “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?,” “[Young men and women] are not thinking in ancient terms that leave ideas of progress out.”[20] Such calls to modify the faith to win the next generation have been a continual refrain throughout the twentieth century, and it has only succeeded in changing the faith into something altogether different.

19. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 112.

20. Fosdick, “Shall the Fundamentalists, Win?,” stenographically reported by Margaret Renton, 1922, 11, Accessed May 26, 2023.

Attempts to attenuate Christianity will neither attract the young to the Church nor lead them to God since, Machen implies, such sentimentality neither works nor is true. “Religion cannot be made joyful simply by looking on the bright side of God. For a one-sided God is not a real God, and it is the real God alone who can satisfy the longing of our soul.”[21] The liberal view of God as a projection of humanity’s best feelings into the sky cannot elicit true joy, precisely because the supposed communion with such a God is taken as granted. There is no costly love nor substance to the divine character or nature on this account. The Triune God, the consuming fire who saves by grace, has been substituted for a fatuous idol of pre-WWI social sensibilities. While the full Christian picture of God may not be popular; it has the distinct benefit of being true. “Yet such a God has at least one advantage over the comforting God of modern preaching—He is alive, He is sovereign, He is not bound by His creation or by His creatures, He can perform wonders. Could He even save us if He would? He has saved us—in that message the gospel consists.”[22] True joy only comes in the recognition of the real Triune God of love who saves sinners and brings them into communion with the holy God through his grace on the cross.

21. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 113.

22. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 113.

The atoning death of Christ, and that alone, has presented sinners as righteous in God’s sight; the Lord Jesus has paid the full penalty of their sins, and clothed them with His perfect righteousness before the judgment seat of God. But Christ has done for Christians even far more than that. He has given to them not only a new and right relation to God, but a new life in God’s presence for evermore. He has saved them from the power as well as from the guilt of sin.[23]

23. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 114.

Only such a full-throated message of grace and redemption addresses the needs of human sin and leads to real and lasting joy.

A Different Instrument of Salvation: Works or Faith

The fundamental dichotomy between the anthropocentrism of liberalism and Theocentrism of Christianity emerges also in the instrument of salvation—either works or faith. The liberal theologian transmutes faith from reliance on Christ’s finished work to concerned actions in response to the summons of Christ. In so doing, faith in Christ has been transformed into faithfulness and cast in a mode acceptable to the fashions of the time.

According to modern liberalism, faith is essentially the same as ‘making Christ Master’ in one’s life; at least it is by making Christ Master in the life that the welfare of men is sought. But that simply means that salvation is thought to be obtained by our own obedience to the commands of Christ. Such teaching is just a sublimated form of legalism. Not the sacrifice of Christ, on this view, but our own obedience to God’s law, is the ground of hope.[24]

24. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 120.

This modification of faith comports with the general tenor of the social gospel movement, which focused on social renewal as the true mark and goal of Christianity.[25] Machen’s critique holds firm that this is anthropocentric religion rather than the Trinitarian Faith of Christian church.

25. For the developments in the social gospel movement in the interwar period see Christopher H. Evans, The Social Gospel in American Religion: A History (New York: NYU Press, 2017), 135–64.

The Christian view of faith, founded on the doctrine of the Reformation, rest neither on human feeling nor transforms into human agency. Faith rather apprehends, in a knowledgeable yet ineffable manner, the source and goal of faith, Jesus Christ and his gospel.

Faith, then, according to the Christian view means simply receiving a gift. To have faith in Christ means to cease trying to win God’s favor by one’s own character; the man who believes in Christ simply accepts the sacrifice which Christ offered on Calvary. The result of such faith is a new life and all good works; but the salvation itself is an absolutely free gift of God.[26]

26. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 120.

Thus out of faith in Christ flows a life of obedience and love, but they are not the ground but the result of salvation. For this Machen invokes the Reformation exegesis of Galatians, and the same emphasis of Martin Luther against the Roman Catholic Church.[27]

27. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 121.

When it is said that faith works through love that means that through faith the necessary basis of all Christian work has been obtained in the removal of guilt and the birth of the new man, and that the Spirit of God has been received—the Spirit who works with and through the Christian man for holy living. The force which enters the Christian life through faith and works itself out through love is the power of the Spirit of God.[28]

28. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 124.

The obedience to Christ and the love which genuinely motivates and empowers both holy living and works of mercy in the world is just as theocentric as the accomplishment of salvation itself. The cross of Christ pays our debt, removes our unrighteousness, and gives us Christ’s own righteousness. The Spirit sent by the Father and the Son grant the new birth and the gift of faith, by grace alone, grounding us in the justification found in Christ. The love and good works of the Christian life are done in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. At no point does the Christian operate from his/her own internal principle or rely on the firmness or soundness of his/her own constitution to please God. From first to last, the Triune God is the Savior.



  • K.J. Drake

    Dr. K.J. Drake is Academic Dean and Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Indianapolis Theological Seminary. He received his M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis in 2012. He completed his Ph.D. in Historical Theology at Saint Louis University in 2018. Dr. Drake's first book entitled The Flesh of the Word: The extra Calvinisticum from Zwingli to Early Orthodoxy was published in the Oxford Studies in Historical Theology. He is an ordained Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America having served churches in both Missouri and Ontario. He currently attends Midtown Church (PCA) in Indianapolis.

K.J. Drake

K.J. Drake

Dr. K.J. Drake is Academic Dean and Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Indianapolis Theological Seminary. He received his M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis in 2012. He completed his Ph.D. in Historical Theology at Saint Louis University in 2018. Dr. Drake's first book entitled The Flesh of the Word: The extra Calvinisticum from Zwingli to Early Orthodoxy was published in the Oxford Studies in Historical Theology. He is an ordained Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America having served churches in both Missouri and Ontario. He currently attends Midtown Church (PCA) in Indianapolis.