Green Mount Cemetery is a 174-year-old, 60-acre plot of land in downtown Baltimore, a fortress for the dead, quarantined from the bustling city by a thick stone wall. Through a narrow stone arch, the street noise fades to silence and time slows to a stop. Acres of stone ornaments rise and fall along the surface of the rolling hills.
The memorials have been aged by the elements, adding to the sense of nostalgia. Tall stone memorials mark the bodies of the famous (Johns Hopkins), unmarked stones anonymously mark the bodies of the infamous (John Wilkes Booth), and one memorial marks the grave of theologian and Baltimore native, J. Gresham Machen, born this day in 1881.
A Legacy of God-Centeredness
So much can be said about Machen’s life and his role in the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929, but what stands out to many are his small books, Christianity and Liberalism (1923) and What Is Faith? (1925).
In marking Machen’s birthday, I think back on his legacy, and recall with fondness one excerpt from What Is Faith? which I read, re-read, studied, and nearly memorized before I knew much about Christian doctrine and ministry.
Machen was the first to teach me the God-centeredness of God, and the priority of desiring God for God himself. It was a lesson learned from precious excerpts like this one from What Is Faith?, pages 72–74:
Many men . . . make shipwreck of their faith. They think of God only as one who can direct the course of nature for their benefit; they value Him only for the things that He can give.
We are subject to many pressing needs, and we are too much inclined to value God, not for His own sake, but only because He can satisfy those needs. There is the need of food and clothing, for ourselves and for our loved ones, and we value God because He can answer the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread.” There is the need of companionship; we shrink from loneliness; we would be surrounded by those who love us and those whom we can love. And we value God as one who can satisfy that need by giving us family and friends. There is the need of inspiring labor; we would be delivered from an aimless life; we desire opportunities for noble and unselfish service of our fellow-men. And we value God as one who by His ordering of our lives can set before us an open door.
These are lofty desires. But there is one desire that is loftier still. It is the desire for God Himself. That desire, too often, we forget. We value God solely for the things that He can do; we make of Him a mere means to an ulterior end. And God refuses to be treated so; such a religion always fails in the hour of need. If we have regarded religion merely as a means of getting things — even lofty and unselfish things — then when the things that have been gotten are destroyed, our faith will fail.
This gets very practical for us, as Machen goes on to explain.
When loved ones are taken away, when disappointment comes and failure, when noble ambitions are set at naught, then we turn away from God; we have tried religion, we say, we have tried prayer, and it has failed. Of course it has failed! God is not content to be an instrument in our hand or a servant at our beck and call. He is not content to minister to the worldly needs of those who care not a bit for Him. . . .
“If God be for us, who can be against us?” — that does not mean that faith in God will bring us everything that we desire. What it does mean is that if we possess God, then we can meet with equanimity the loss of all besides.
Has it never dawned upon us that God is valuable for His own sake, that just as personal communion is the highest thing that we know on earth, so personal communion with God is the sublimest height of all?
If we value God for His own sake, then the loss of other things will draw us all the closer to Him; we shall then have recourse to Him in time of trouble as to the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. I do not mean that the Christian need expect always to be poor and sick and lonely and to seek his comfort only in a mystic experience with His God. This universe is God’s world; its blessings are showered upon His creatures even now; and in His own good time, when the period of its groaning and travailing is over, He will fashion it as a habitation of glory. But what I do mean is that if here and now we have the one inestimable gift of God’s presence and favor, then all the rest can wait till God’s good time.
Here lies the precious, God-centered legacy left to us by J. Gresham Machen. It’s a legacy Scripture calls us to enjoy and share with our spouses, our children, our neighbors, and our colleagues.