This is the simple yet profound good news of Christianity: God and man may be reconciled through the God-man, Jesus Christ. This is orthodox Christianity, the Christianity that Machen worked so fearlessly to defend and that modern liberalism still works so fiercely to oppose.
J. Gresham Machen lamented the loss of the conception of God and the consciousness of sin on the modern mind. According to Machen, modern liberalism had, in the first instance, challenged the need even to have a conception or knowledge of God. To inquire after a knowledge of God is the death of religion, it was argued. We ought not to know God but to feel Him; and if we are to conceive of Him, we must do so in vague and general terms. God is Father, but this means nothing more than His universal fatherhood for all creatures, which in turn encourages a universal brotherhood among all peoples.
Machen was, of course, willing to acknowledge that the Scriptures speak in one sense of God’s universal fatherhood (see Acts 17:28; Heb. 12:9). But only a few isolated texts provide support; the predominant understanding of God as Father in the Scriptures is in relation to His redeemed people. For Machen, however, the fatherhood of God was not the center or core of the Christian doctrine of God. Rather, a single attribute “render[s] intelligible all the rest”: the “awful transcendence of God.” Machen was speaking about the awesome holiness of God—His distinctness, His otherness. This, for Machen, was the truth of which modern liberalism had lost sight. As a result, liberalism had erased the Creator-creature distinction that is so fundamental to true Christianity. It had instead produced a pantheistic God who is simply part of the “world process.” God was no longer a distinct being; His life was in our life and our life was in His life. In Machen’s own words:
Modern liberalism, even when it is not consistently pantheistic, is at any rate pantheizing. It tends everywhere to break down the separateness between God and the world, and the sharp distinction between God and man.
A corollary of this (mis)conception of God was a (mis)understanding of man and, in particular, “the loss of the consciousness of sin.” Since God is no longer conceived of as holy and transcendent, He rests lightly on the modern mind, and thus does sin as well. Machen sought to discern the precipitators for this shift in modern thinking. Writing shortly after World War I (1914–18), he believed that war produced an overfocus on the sins of others to the neglect of one’s own sins. In war, where one side is viewed as the embodiment of evil, it is easy not to see the evil in one’s own heart. There was also the problem of the collectivism of the modern state, in which everyone is a victim of circumstances, obscuring “the individual, personal character of guilt.” Behind the shift in the modern doctrine of sin, however, Machen saw a more sinister and significant cause: paganism. By paganism, Machen did not mean barbarianism. During the height of the Greek Empire, paganism was not grotesque but glorious. It was a world-and-life view that found “the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties.” That is to say, humanity is essentially good and can attain the good, through the proper engagement and discipline of its mind and body. For Machen, such a perspective had become dominant in his day, replacing the Christian view of sin and personal guilt before a holy God.