J. Gresham Machen

Book Review: Things Unseen, By J. Gresham Machen

Things Unseen, by J. Gresham Machen, is (as the subtitle puts it), “a systematic introduction to the Christian faith and reformed theology.” And what an introduction it is!

For those who may not be familiar with Dr. Machen (1881-1937), he might be the greatest theologian of the 20th century whom no one has ever heard of before. He was a long-time professor at Princeton Seminary, before leaving that institution to found Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1929. He was instrumental in forming the Orthodox Presbyterian Church denomination in 1936 as well. (If you would like to learn more about Machen, Stephen J. Nichols has written a very good biography which I would enthusiastically commend to you – J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought.)

The chapters in this book were originally written for a series of radio broadcasts via the WIP radio station in Philadelphia. Those broadcasts were intended for a general audience, in many ways even with unbelievers in view. There is a decidedly evangelistic tone throughout.

He lays out the basic essentials of the Christian faith in a systematic fashion, in much the same logical order found in much more complex systematic theology texts, and yet he somehow does so in such a way as to remain remarkably accessible and readable.

He cites the Westminster Shorter Catechism liberally (pun!) throughout. At least half of the 50 chapters of the book contain direct references and quotes from the catechism. He also refers the reader to such eminent Reformed theologians as Charles Hodge, Benjamin B. Warfield, John Murray, and Geerhardus Vos throughout the book.

He addresses such topics as the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, God’s sovereignty and the freedom of man, predestination (3 full chapters), Providence, the doctrine of original sin, the threefold office of Christ (as Prophet, Priest, and King), the atonement of Christ, and the active obedience of Christ. And somehow he manages to make all of these things clear and accessible to regular, everyday Christians.

I just wish the book were longer, and that he could have lived to complete the work. Nevertheless, the ground that he covers is more than enough to get anyone well on their way in seeking to understand the Christian faith and reformed theology. If you are looking for an accessible & readable introduction to the Reformed faith, I would highly recommend this volume to you.

The Glorious Certainty of the Gospel


What is the relationship between the grace of God in the gospel and assurance? Why is the doctrine of justification by faith alone so important? J. Gresham Machen writes,

Such is the glorious certainty of the gospel. The salvation of the Christian is certain because it depends altogether upon God; if it depended in slightest measure upon us, the certainty of it would be gone. Hence appears the vital importance of the great Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone;  that doctrine is at the very centre of Christianity. It means that acceptance with God is not something that we earn; it is not something that is subject to the wretched uncertainties of human endeavor; but it is a free gift of God. (What Is Faith?, p.200-201)

That is just one more reason why the doctrine of justification by faith alone is so important. It is not just a matter for ivory tower theologians or fodder for theological debate – far from it!  It makes all the difference in the world to each and every believer in Christ. Why? Because it is the only real way to true certainty and assurance in the Christian life.

Justification by faith alone presents us with a choice between the “glorious certainty of the gospel” (i.e. knowing without a shadow of a doubt that you have been fully forgiven and accepted by a holy God) or the wretched uncertainties of human endeavor.”

If our salvation depends upon our works in even the slightest degree, all certainty and assurance are cast aside. But if salvation is a free gift of God (which is ultimately what justification by faith alone entails), then & only then can the believer truly have the peace and assurance that comes with believing the gospel of Christ.

Almost God?


Some wise words from J.Gresham Machen on the subject of the deity of Christ:

“[T]he church hurled anathemas at those who held that Christ, though great, was less than God. But those anathemas were beneficent and right. That difference of opinion was no mere trifle; there is no such thing as “almost God.” The thought is blasphemy; the next thing less than the infinite is infinitely less.” (J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith?, p.116)

For anyone (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example) to claim that Jesus is “a god” (but not fully God) or that He is “almost God” is utter nonsense.  As Machen astutely points out, there is no such thing as “almost God” or almost infinite.  It is not only nonsense, but blasphemy as well. Jesus is either God or He is something far less that that. There really is no middle ground.


Book Review: J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought


J. Gresham Machen may very well be the most under-appreciated theologian of the 20th century. Thankfully his influence and accomplishments far outstrip his fame (or lack thereof) in the Christian community.

Within a span of only about seven (7) years he started Westminster Theological Seminary (1929), the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions (1933), and the denomination known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, or OPC (1936).  Not only that, but his writings continue to instruct and edify believers over 75 years after He went home to be with the Lord.

If you are looking for a book to serve as a basic introduction and overview of his life & teaching, then look no further than Stephen J. Nichols’s book, J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought.  It is a very good mix of both biography and literary analysis.

Nichols spends the first three (3) chapters on the basic biographical details of Machen’s life, and the last nine (9) chapters delving into his writings on such subjects as theology, culture, and the church.  One of the most helpful aspects of the chapters on the writings of Machen was the way in which the author discusses the background and history surrounding those writings. (In other words, he does not abandon history after chapter three.)

He also ends each chapter with a brief note about the sources used in putting those chapters together.  This may seem tedious to some, but for the student who wants to know more about Machen, it is very helpful.

Of particular note are the chapters on what are perhaps Machen’s most well-known books, Christianity & Liberalism and What Is Faith?  He does a very good job summarizing Machen’s arguments for the reader.  Concerning Christianity & Liberalism, Nichols writes,

Machen captures the essence of Paul’s summary of the gospel in the early verses of that chapter [i.e. 1 Corinthians 15] when he writes, “‘Christ died’ – that is history; ‘Christ died for our sins’ – that is doctrine. Without these two elements, joined in absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity” (p.89).

This book not only made me want to read more about Machen, but more by Machen as well.  I highly recommend this volume to you.  You can order a copy here: J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought

Machen’s Mother


The little things sometimes make a big difference.  As parents (and even as pastors!), we should never lose sight of that.

In his book on the life and thought of J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), Stephen J. Nichols makes the following observation regarding Machen’s early childhood:

At the center of [his] upbringing was the Bible, the Shorter Catechism, and The Pilgrim’s Progress, all poured into the lives of the Machen boys by their mother. (J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought, p.25-26)

Not only does this point out the value of such seemingly simple things as reading to and with your children, but it also highlights the powerful and lasting influence that a believing mother can have on her children (and through her children, on generations to come as well!).

His mother took the time to instill in her boys the knowledge of the Scriptures, the Shorter Catechism, and one of the Christian classics (The Pilgrim’s Progress).  This kind of thing was not always as remarkable as it might seem to us today, but used to simply be a part of growing up in a godly Presbyterian home.  It would be truly difficult to overestimate the lifelong benefits of this kind of upbringing.

Even though he is not exactly a household name within American evangelical circles, his influence for the good of the church is still being felt over 75 years after his death.  In his later years Machen would end up founding a seminary (Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia), a missions organization (The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions), and a denomination (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, or OPC).

And the impact that his mother had on his life should not be underestimated.  By the grace of God, those little things that she took the time to do with her sons, had a lasting influence.

What was Machen’s own estimation of his mother’s influence?  If you look at the dedication of his most well-known work, Christianity & Liberalism, you will see these three simple words:

To My Mother