Written by R. Scott Clark |
Saturday, February 18, 2023

The social gospellers taught that we may and must “save” ourselves “through love.” For Machen, however, such a doctrine was just “semi-Pelagianism.” For the social gospellers, the hope of the world is to “apply the principles of Jesus” to it, as though He were a mere teacher or prophet. For Machen, however, the “redeeming work of Christ which is at the center of the Bible is applied to the individual soul . . . by the Holy Spirit.” Therefore, we “find no permanent hope for society in the mere ‘principles of Jesus’ or the like, but we find it in the new birth of individual souls.”

World War I turned Europe on its head, brought crashing down the optimism of the Enlightenment, and ushered in post-Enlightenment Europe. In America, however, young people undeterred by the war set about attempting to bring to earth the kingdom of God through social action. They called their message “the social gospel,” and its principal preacher was Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), who endeavored to address the poverty he found in Hell’s Kitchen (in New York) by preaching a “gospel” of social improvement and working toward bringing about the kingdom of God on the earth through social action. This was their definition of salvation.

J. Gresham Machen (1881–1936), however, also survived World War I and defended a different doctrine, which held that the visible church represents Christ’s spiritual kingdom on the earth and that Christians exist in what John Calvin had called a “twofold kingdom” (Institutes 3.19.15). For Machen, salvation was too grand an idea to be brought utterly to earth. He recognized that Christianity was “certainly a life,” but how was it produced? The social gospellers thought that they could bring about that life “by exhortation,” Machen wrote, but such an approach always proves “powerless.” “The strange thing about Christianity was,” he explained, “that it adopted an entirely different method. It transformed the lives of men not by appealing to the human will, but by telling a story; not by exhortation, but by the narration of an event.” He recognized that such an approach seems “impractical.” It is what Paul called “ ‘the foolishness of the message.’ . . . It seemed foolish to the ancient world, and it seems foolish to liberal teachers today.” Nevertheless, the “effects of it appear even in this world. Where the most eloquent exhortation fails, the simple story of an event succeeds; the lives of men are transformed by a piece of news.”

The social gospel reduced the human problem to material poverty. For Machen, a student of Paul and an Augustinian, our problem is much more profound. In his 1935 radio addresses, he explained that sin is much more than “antisocial conduct,” as the progressives and the social gospellers had it. The true definition of sin is “disobedience to a command of God.” It is, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism so wonderfully says, “any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God” (Q&A 14).

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