Jesus Was Not The First Christian: Machen On The Person of Christ

This is the fifth installment in our seven-part seriesbased on J. Gresham Machen’s seminal work,Christianity and Liberalism (1923). This post covers Chapter 5, which shows how theological liberalism diverges from Christianity in its concept of the person and work of Jesus.

WHICH JESUS?

Jesus Christ is the central figure of the Christian faith. According to J. Gresham Machen, modern naturalistic liberalismmanufactures a different Christ than that of the Bible and the orthodox Christian tradition. The Christian view of Jesus and the modern liberal view of Jesus use many of the same terms, but those terms are attached to very different meanings. Discerning the meaning of terms is critical, Machen argues, because liberals “resort constantly to a double use of language.” The question is not “Do you believe in Jesus?” but “Which Jesus do you believe in?”

The Jesus spoken of in the New Testament was no mere teacher of righteousness, no mere pioneer in a new type of religious life, but One who was regarded, and regarded himself, as the Savior whom men could trust. (p. 85)

JESUS WAS NO MERE MODEL

The Jesus of liberalism is not the savior of the world, to be worshiped as God, but the great religious teacher and ethical example for humanity. Modern liberalism offered a Jesus who was the great example, guide, teacher, and model whom men and women should imitate. Machen writes, “The modern liberal preacher reverences Jesus; he has the name of Jesus forever on his lips; he speaks of Jesus as the supreme revelation of God; he enters, or tries to enter, into the religious life of Jesus . . . [and] tries to have faith in God like the faith which he supposes Jesus had in God.” For liberalism, Jesus becomes the first Christian, who set the example for us to follow.

But this is not enough. Jesus was not merely a heroic human model to be followed, but God as a man, the Savior of sinful humanity.

Liberalism regards Jesus as the fairest flower of humanity; Christianity regards him as a supernatural Person. (p. 82)

HE’S THE MESSIAH, NOT AN EXAMPLE

The New Testament reveals that Jesus is God in the flesh, the one we trust in to become Christians. Jesus claimed to be much more than what liberalism portrays. He claimed to be the Messiah, the judge of all people, and the sinless Son of God who found all others to be sinful and called them to repentance. The message of the New Testament is not to call sinful humanity to be like Jesus, but to proclaim that Jesus died on behalf of sinners to declare us righteous. As Machen rightly points out, the earliest Christians identified with Jesus “not because he was their example in their ridding themselves of sin, but because their method of ridding themselves of sin was by means of him.”

A DESPERATELY LOW VIEW OF GOD

The Jesus of liberalism was not God, just “the fairest flower of humanity,” writes Machen (p. 82). Liberals argue that Jesus was divine just like the rest of humanity is divine, but in a greater degree. Because liberalism balked at miracles and supernaturalism, in the quest for a historical Jesus they eliminated much of the supernatural from what Jesus said and did as written in the Gospels, constructing a nice and non-supernatural Jesus palatable to the modern scientific mind. Modern liberals, he writes, “say that Jesus is God not because they think high of Jesus, but because they think desperately low of God.”

A SUPERNATURAL SAVIOR

Machen demonstrates how this is a distortion of New Testament Christianity and a different Jesus and Christianity altogether. Paul, in his epistles, speaks of Jesus in worshipful adoration along with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Paul throughout his letters treats Jesus as “no mere man, but a supernatural Person, and indeed a Person who was God” (p. 83).

Jesus’ friends and apostles believed the same thing. Paul’s portrayal of Jesus was never argued against, but assumed. The Gospels also witness to the fact that Jesus and the Father are not only unified in mission, but unified with one another in a mysterious union. Contrary to liberalism, the New Testament affirms both the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, and that he was a supernatural person unlike any other human. Christianity claims that the supernatural, personal God of all creation miraculously intervened in his creation and lovingly sent his Son to redeem sinful people from the curse of sin and death.

The Jesus of the New Testament has at least one advantage over the Jesus of modern reconstruction—he is real. He is not a manufactured figure suitable as a point of support for ethical maxims, but a genuine Person whom a man can love. Men have loved him throughout all the Christian centuries. And the strange thing is that despite all the efforts to remove him from the pages of history, there are those who love him still. (p. 116)

Next up, we’ll look at the difference between liberalism’s human-centered salvation and Christianity’s supernatural work of God to rescue us from slavery. 

Can’t wait? Read the book for free online or listen to it as a free audiobook.