Machen, Two Ages, and Galatians

J. Gresham Machen wrote a series of articles on the book of Galatians for Christianity Today. His explanation of justification would now be called “Lutheran” or “old perspective.” Proponents of a “new perspective” emphasize Galatians as a story of the dawn of a new age, a new state of affairs inaugurated by the resurrection of Christ. Some of them reason that an eschatological reading of Galatians necessitates modifying the “Lutheran” doctrine of justification, which is individualistic and misleading. Machen notes the eschatological orientation of Galatians, yet maintains its harmony with a traditional doctrine of justification.

The doctrine of the two ages was a well-known Jewish doctrine at the time of our Lord and of His apostles. Ultimately the doctrine had an Old Testament basis in such passages as the prophecy in Isaiah 65: 17-25 regarding the new heavens and the new earth. The later Jews were quite in accordance with Old Testament teaching when they looked forward to a new and glorious age which was to take the place of the present age of misery and sin.

But at this point an important difference enters in. The difference is that according to the Jews a man must be either in one age or in the other, whereas according to Paul (and really also according to Jesus) a man, through Christ, can already, here and now, be free from the present age and a citizen of the future kingdom. In one sense we look to the future for our salvation, but in another sense we have it here and now. Outwardly we are still in the present evil age, but inwardly we are already free from its bondage.

The double aspect of salvation—in one sense, future; in another sense, present—runs all through apostolic teaching, and is quite basic in true Christian life of all ages. Here in Galatians it is especially the present aspect of salvation that is in view. “You have already been made free from the present evil age,” Paul says to the Galatians; “what folly then it is to return into bondage! Christ died to set you free; will you then do despite to His love by becoming again slaves?”

It is a freedom, first of all, from sin—freedom from its guilt and freedom from its power. But the freedom from sin brings also a freedom from this whole evil world. What cares the true Christian what the world may do; what cares he what ill fortune, as the world looks upon it, may bring? These things hold the unredeemed in bondage, but over the redeemed man they have no power.

The Christian does indeed live still in this world. It is a travesty on this Pauline doctrine when it is held to mean that when he escapes, inwardly, from the present evil world by the redeeming work of Christ the Christian can calmly leave the world to its fate. On the contrary, Christian men, even after they have been redeemed, are left in this world, and in this world they have an important duty to perform.

In the first place, they do not stand alone, but are united in the great brotherhood of the Christian Church. Into that brotherhood it is their duty to invite other men by the preaching of the gospel; and they should pray that that preaching, through the supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit in the new birth, may be efficacious, and that the great brotherhood may expand yet more and more.

In the second place, Christians should by no means adopt a negative attitude toward art, government, science, literature, and the other achievements of mankind, but should consecrate these things to the service of God. The separateness of the Christian from the world is not to be manifested, as so many seem to think that it should be manifested, by the presentation to God of only an impoverished man; but it is to be manifested by the presentation to God of all man’s God-given powers developed to the full. That is the higher Christian humanism, a humanism based not upon human pride but upon the sold foundation of the grace of God.

But these considerations do not make any less radical the step of which Paul speaks. It remains true that the Christian has escaped from this present age—from this present world with all its sin and all its pride. The Christian continues to live in the world, but he lives in it as its master and not as its slave. He can move the world because at last he has a place to stand. (30-32)

New perspective exegetes have offered genuine insights, but as a rule have exaggerated their own novelty. A thorough survey of commentaries on Galatians would show that many older Protestant commentators did indeed recognize the redemptive-historical dimensions of Galatians, but insisted they serve the doctrine of justification rather than the other way around. As in a fine musical piece, so much hinges on where the accent falls.

Published in: on June 20, 2011 at 10:06 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Charlie,

    Maybe you’ve already noted this somewhere and I missed it, but it’s worth pointing out that the Christianity Today for which Machen wrote was not the same periodical as the one that uses that title today. If I remember correctly, it was successor to The Presbyterian and predecessor to the Presbyterian Guardian.

    • I did not know that. Thank you for the information.

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