What is Faith? by J. Gresham Machen. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991. 262pp, $9.95 (paper). [Reviewed by Steven R. Key.]

This book contains the material of a course of lectures which was delivered at the Grove City Bible School in the summer of 1925. There are only eight chapters in this book of some 262 pages. The chapters, therefore, are somewhat lengthy, giving thorough development to their themes.

One who would contrast faith with knowledge – something frequently done today – will be struck by the introductory chapter of this book. This is not a book for one content with a superficial, feelings oriented Christianity.

J. Gresham Machen, Presbyterian scholar from the early part of this century, begins with a scathing denunciation of the anti-intellectual tendency of his age – something which is still pertinent nearly 70 years later. He confronts what he observed as a decline in education, assisted by absurd teaching theories and general laziness in learning. This growth of ignorance is a detriment to the strength and stability of the church. Prior to developing the truth that our Christian faith must have substance, Machen writes:

…In one sense, indeed, we are traditionalists…. But on the whole, in view of the conditions that now exist, it would perhaps be more correct to call us “radicals” than to call us “conservatives.” We look not for a mere continuation of spiritual conditions that now exist, but for an outburst of new power; we are seeking in particular to arouse youth from its present uncritical repetition of current phrases into some genuine examination of the basis of life; and we believe that Christianity flourishes not in the darkness, but in the light (p. 13).

Thus Machen points out that one of the chief purposes of this book is to break down the false distinction which has been set up between knowledge and faith, and to restore to its proper place sound doctrine and the primacy of the intellect.

The approach which Machen takes in this consideration of the biblical truth of faith is an interesting approach. He develops, first of all, the subject of “Faith in God,” in which he points to the truth that faith has substance. Faith lays hold on God who is the Creator-Redeemer who reveals Himself to us, and more particularly to our minds.

The heading of the next chapter is “Faith in Christ.” Here Machen develops the truth that faith in God depends completely upon Christ’s redeeming work. There is a serious fault, however, in this section. Here Machen falls into the error of a double track theology. While he emphasizes that God is the Father of some and not all, he also states that “the door of the household of faith is open wide for all men to come in. Christ died to open that door, and the pity is that we try to close it by our failure to spread the invitation throughout all the world” (p. 86). There is, therefore, a failure to show the relationship between faith and sovereign election. Furthermore, there is a failure to develop faith as the work of God in His people.

This error, sad to say, surfaces again in the subsequent chapters, and runs as a current through the book Machen fails to understand the distinction that our Heidelberg Catechism makes, e.g., between the bond or power of faith which God establishes when He grafts us into Christ, and the activity of faith.

The focus of the book is entirely upon the activity of faith. And although one could certainly write a book on that aspect of faith, the failure to grasp clearly the idea of faith as a work of God leads to the error of making faith the work of man. That is the unavoidable consequence of double-track theology — double track, because Machen himself wants to hold to two mutually exclusive teachings at the same time. On the one hand, he wants to maintain that salvation is entirely the work of God. He writes, e.g., on page 173: “The very centre and core of the whole Bible is the doctrine of the grace of God – the grace of God which depends not one whit upon anything that is in man, but is absolutely undeserved, resistless, and sovereign.” Excellent! But Machen denies the very truth of that statement when he writes (p. 143): “And faith consists simply in our acceptance of that wondrous gift (the gift of salvation through the cross of Christ – SK). When we accept the gift, we are clothed, entirely without merit of our own, by the righteousness of Christ . . . .” He makes faith, therefore, a condition unto salvation and indeed unto justification, a condition that must be fulfilled by man. With that we heartily disagree!

We heartily agree, however, with what he writes on page 180 (which contradicts completely what he had written on page 143): “Faith is not regarded in the New Testament as itself a meritorious work or a meritorious condition of the soul; but it is regarded as a means which is used by the grace of God: the New Testament never says that man is saved on account of his faith, but always that he is saved through his faith or by means of his faith; faith is merely the means which the Holy Spirit uses to apply to the individual soul the benefits of Christ’s death” (emphasis is Machen’s).

In spite of the above-mentioned inconsistencies and errors, which are certainly serious, the discerning reader can certainly gain much from this volume. Reformed pastors are encouraged to read it prior to preaching from Lord’s Day 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism.

The book also has a thorough subject and textual index, a feature which is always appreciated by this pastor.