... The Christian doctrine of the atonement, therefore, is altogether rooted in the Christian doctrine of the deity of Christ. The reality of an atonement for sin depends altogether upon the New Testament presentation of the Person of Christ. And even the hymns dealing with the Cross which we sing in Church can be placed in an ascending scale according as they are based upon a lower or a higher view of Jesus' Person. At the very bottom of the scale is that familiar hymn:
Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer to thee!
E'en though it be a cross
That raiseth me.
That is a perfectly good hymn. It means that our trials may be a discipline to bring us nearer to God. The thought is not opposed to Christianity; it is found in the New Testament. But many persons have the impression, because the word 'cross' is found in the hymn, that there is something specifically Christian about it, and that it has something to do with the gospel. This impression is entirely false. In reality, the cross that is spoken of is not the Cross of Christ, but our own cross;...
...the verse simply means that our own crosses or trials may be a means to bring us nearer to God. It is a perfectly good thought, but certainly it is not the gospel. One can only be sorry that the people on the Titanic could not find a better hymn to use in the last solemn hour of their lives.
But there is another hymn in the hymn-book:
In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o'er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.
That is certainly better. It is here not our own crosses but the Cross of Christ, the actual event that took place on Calvary, that is spoken of, and that event is celebrated as the center of all history. Certainly the Christian man can sing that hymn. But one misses even there the full Christian sense of the meaning of the Cross; the Cross is celebrated, but it is not understood.
It is well, therefore, that there is another hymn in our hymn-book:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
There at length are heard the accents of true Christian feeling - the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died. When we come to see that it was no mere man who suffered on Calvary but the Lord of Glory, then we shall be willing to say that one drop of the precious blood of Jesus is of more value, for our own salvation and for the hope of society, than all the rivers of blood that have flowed upon the battlefields of history.
Thus the objection to the vicarious sacrifice of Christ disappears altogether before the tremendous Christian sense of the majesty of Jesus' Person. It is perfectly true that the Christ of modern naturalistic reconstruction never could have suffered for the sins of others; but it is very different in the case of the Lord of Glory. And if the notion of vicarious atonement be so absurd as modern opposition would lead us to believe, what shall be said of the Christian experience that has been based upon it? The modern liberal Church is fond of appealing to experience. But where shall true Christian experience be found if not in the blessed peace which comes from Calvary?
One of the many thousands who felt indebted to Warfield was Dr J. Gresham Machen. Of all the teachers at Princeton it was he who left the deepest and most lasting impression on Machen. This influence was not felt so much as a student nor in Machen’s early years as an Instructor in the Seminary. Evidence of it can indeed be seen as early as 1909, the year of the 400th anniversary celebration of Calvin’s birth. Machen wrote to his mother of Warfield’s address on ‘The Theology of John Calvin’ as ‘the feature’ of the Celebration at Princeton. In this address Warfield spoke of the vision of God in His Majesty as ‘lying at the foundation of the entirety of Calvinistic thinking’. It was through Warfield that Machen came to see that a broadly based evangelicalism was not enough — it was the full-orbed Reformed faith which alone was consistent Biblical Christianity and consistent evangelicalism.
Warfield saw the drift which had set in at Princeton — the drift which was eventually to destroy the witness of the Seminary which had stood for over a century as a bastion of the faith. Dr Machen tells of an extraordinary conversation which he had with Warfield shortly before the latter’s death: ‘In the course of the conversation I expressed my hope that to end the present intolerable condition there might be a great split in the Church, in order to separate the Christians from the anti-Christian propagandists. “No”, he said, “you can’t split rotten wood”.’ He had small hope for the major denominations of the time. (Stonehouse’s Biography of Machen, p. 310).