J. Gresham Machen, one of the 20th century's great Christian heroes, was dying of pneumonia in a Bismarck, N.D., hospital on the first day of the new year, 1937. He was 54. Unconscious during most of that last day, during one of his lucid moments he dictated a telegram that turned out to be his last words: "I'm so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it."
The recipient of that telegram was a young colleague at Westminster Seminary who would prove to be one of the great Christian minds of the 20th century, John Murray. On May 8, 1975, Murray lay in bed at home in his native Scotland dying of cancer at age 76. As he passed through his last bout with intense pain, he prayed his last prayer, which contained his last words: "God be merciful to me a sinner."
In those two sets of last words, spoken nearly 40 years apart, by two men who did most to promote the 20th-century resurgence of biblical Christianity, we find reliance on the two major parts of Christ's atoning work. One of these is the subject of Christian forgetfulness, the other the object of Christian embarrassment. Machen died relying on what the theologians call Christ's active obedience, and Murray died appealing to what the theologians call Christ's passive obedience.
The aspect of Christ's work we tend to forget is His active obedience-His obeying always, in every thought, feeling, motive, word, and action, the will of God. There was never so much as a moment when Christ did not love God with all His heart, soul, strength, and mind, or when He did not love His neighbor as Himself. This representative obedience of Christ is the sole source of the righteousness by which a man may stand right in God's sight. In Christ God provides the Christ-righteousness He demands of man, but which man the sinner can never achieve. It is obtained, not by human effort, but by Spirit-given faith.
"Thy righteousness, O Christ, alone can cover me; no righteousness avails save that which is of thee."
The passive obedience of Christ is His submitting Himself to the wrath of God in the place of sinners. "God be merciful to me a sinner" is more literally, "God be propitiated toward me a sinner."
"To be propitiated" is "to turn away wrath." The way God justly turns His wrath away from us is by turning it toward His Son. Historically, theological liberals have considered propitiation unworthy of God. God's having wrath toward man and directing it away from him toward Christ the substitute seems a left-over of primitive ideas of an angry God. Increasingly, evangelicals are uncomfortable with propitiation, too, and push it aside in preference for proclaiming the cross as an undefined demonstration of how much God loves us. Both are embarrassed by propitiation and so miss the glory of grace-God's love providing what His justice demands by delivering up His only Son to a hellish death for us. It is in this way only that God can be and is merciful to sinners.
"Thy pains, not mine, O Christ, upon the shameful tree, have paid the law's full price and purchased peace for me."
Not a few Christians today think of doctrine as an unhelpful hindrance to Christian experience and an unneeded barrier to Christian unity. But doctrine matters when you're dying. I hope, when the time comes for me to put my foot into the chilly waters that must be crossed between this life and the life to come, that, by God's grace, I may die in faith. I hope I will be confessing the gospel of Christ's active and passive obedience, full of confidence that "he who dies believing, dies safely, through Thy love." Then on that last day:
"When from the dust of death I rise to claim my mansion in the skies, ev'n then shall this be all my plea, Jesus hath lived, hath died, for me."