alien righteousness

A High View of Law Makes a Man a Seeker After Grace

Taken from J. Gresham Machen’s “What is Faith?” (First published in 1925)

…men sometimes try to come to Christ through the sense of beauty. And indeed it is a beautiful thing—this life of Christ rising like a fair flower amid the foulness of the Roman Empire, this strange teaching so simple and yet so profound. But there is at least one objection to the sense of beauty as the way of approach to Christ—it cannot be forced upon those who desire it not. There is no disputing about tastes: one man may admire Jesus, another may prefer the pagan glories of ancient Greece or of the Italian Renaissance; and if it is a merely aesthetic question, no universally valid decision can be attained. If the way of approach is merely through the sense of beauty, then the universality of the Christian religion, at any rate, must be given up.

Is the life and teaching of Jesus, moreover, so beautiful after all? Jesus said some things that offend the sensibilities of many people, as when He spoke of the outer darkness and the everlasting fire, and of the sin that shall not be forgiven either in this world or in that which is to come. These things cannot be called exactly “pretty” ; and by many men they are simply ignored. (136)

These are the persons who have passed through the strange experience of the conviction of sin, the persons who hold the same view of sin and retribution that Jesus held. To such persons, and to such persons alone, the beauty of Jesus is without a flaw. That beauty cannot be appreciated without a knowledge of the holiness upon which it is based; and the holiness is unknown except to those who have been convicted of their own sin through learning the lesson of the law. (137)

The fact is, then, there is no other way of coming to Christ except the old, old way that is found in the conviction of sin. (140-141)

… ‘Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord’ ; the example of Jesus is powerless to those who are in the bondage of evil habit, and it is not even a perfect example unless He is the divine Redeemer that He claimed to be. The true schoolmaster to bring men to Christ is found, therefore, now and always in the law of God—the law of God that gives to men the consciousness of sin.

A new and more powerful proclamation of that law is perhaps the most pressing need of the hour; men would have little difficulty with the gospel if they had only learned the lesson of the law. As it is, they are turning aside from the Christian pathway; they are turning to the village of Morality, and to the house of Mr. Legality, who is reported to be very skilful in relieving men of their burdens. Mr. Legality has indeed in our day disguised himself somewhat, but he is the same deceiver as the one of whom Bunyan wrote. ‘Making Christ Master’ in the life, putting into practice ‘the principles of Christ’ by ones own efforts—these are merely new ways of earning salvation by one’s own obedience to God’s commands. And they are undertaken because of a lax view of what those commands are. So it always is: a low view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seek after grace. Pray God that the high view may again prevail; that Mount Sinai may again overhang the path and shoot forth flames, in order that then men of our time may, like Christian in the allegory, meet some true Evangelist, who shall point them out the old, old way, through the little wicket gate, to the place somewhat ascending where they shall really see the Cross and the figure of Him that did hang thereon, that at that sight the burden of the guilt sin, which no human hand could remove, may fall from their back into a sepulchre beside the way, and that then, with wondrous lightness and freedom and joy, they may walk the Christian path, through the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and up over the Delectable Mountains, until at last they pass triumphant across the river into the City of God.” (141-142)

Amen.

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