Results tagged “Reformation” from Reformation21 Blog

The Old Perspective on the Works of the Law

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Biblical studies have undergone something of a seismic shift over the past three decades. Noted scholars such as James D.G. Dunn, E.P. Sander and N.T. Wright have questioned whether the theologians of the Reformation have properly understood the theological arguments of the Apostle Paul. This is especially so with regard to Paul's teaching on the meaning of justification in the letters to the Romans and Galatians. Their resounding conclusion is that Reformed and Protestant theologians have largely misunderstood Paul's argumentation concerning the nature of justification and the eschatological role of the Law in the life of believers. According to proponents of the New Perspective(s) on Paul, justification does not--as the Reformed have always maintained--involve the imputation of Christ's righteousness by faith alone. The crux of the argument has to do with how one defines the phrase "works of the Law" (and its various related forms in Pauline literature). Without wishing to do injustice to the nuanced differences that exist in the writings of these men, I want to point out what I believe to be an important historical theological fact that has often been overlooked in recent debates: the New Perspective's supposedly new understanding of the meaning of the phrase works of the Law is nothing other than the Old Roman Catholic perspective on the phrase. 

Proponents of the New Perspective(s) have insisted that the phrase "works of the Law" does not, as the Reformers and Puritans held, refer to "a man's attempt to work for his standing before God based on his own law keeping." They contend that the phrase refers to Jewish boundary markers. In redefining it in this way, they reduce the meaning of the phrase down to nothing other than the ceremonial laws of Israel. In doing so, they radically redefine Paul's argument concerning justification--rejecting the Reformed idea that Paul was teaching that "justification is the receiving of the forgiveness of sin and a legal standing of righteous by faith alone, based on the death of Christ and the imputation of His righteousness." Instead, they assert that justification is inclusion of Jew and Gentile into the one corporate body of God's Covenant people under the Lordship of Christ. In turn, N.T. Wright teaches that there is an eschatological (i.e. future) justification based on the Spirit wrought good-works of believers. 

The Apostle Paul's argument that a man is justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the Law (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16; 3:11; 3:24) strikes a decisive blow to the thesis of the New Perspective, if Paul is, in fact, teaching that justification is what the Reformed taught it to be, namely, a once-for-all legal act of God. The Reformers understanding of Paul's argument radically impacted later Protestant formulations on the doctrine of justification. There is arguably no better formulation than that which we find in the Westminster Short Catechism

"Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone" (WSC Q. 33). 

The essence of this definition is found in Calvin's Institutes, where we read:

"We simply interpret justification, as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ" (Institutes 3.11.2).

Calvin labored tirelessly as an exegete, in dependence upon and in polemical interaction with the exegesis of those who went before him. It should come as no surprise for us to discover that Calvin paid a great deal of attention to the arguments of Roman Catholic theologians regarding Paul's arguments on justification--especially in his exegesis of Romans and Galatians. For instance, in his commentary on Galatians 2:15 Calvin wrote: 

"The first thing to be noticed is, that we must seek justification by the faith of Christ, because we cannot be justified by works. Now, the question is, what is meant by the works of the law? The Papists, misled by Origen and Jerome, are of opinion, and lay it down as certain, that the dispute relates to shadows; and accordingly assert, that by the works of the law are meant ceremonies" (Commentary on Galatians).

Here we discover that the argument of the theologians of the New Perspective(s) on the meaning of the phrase works of the Law is merely the Old Perspective of Early and Medieval Romans Catholic theologians. Calvin continued:

"As if Paul were not reasoning about the free justification which is bestowed on us by Christ. For they see no absurdity in maintaining that no man is justified by the works of the law, and yet that, by the merit of works, we are accounted righteous in the sight of God. In short, they hold that no mention is here made of the works of the moral law. But the context clearly proves that the moral law is also comprehended in these words; for almost everything which Paul afterwards advances belongs more properly to the moral than to the ceremonial law; and he is continually employed in contrasting the righteousness of the law with the free acceptance which God is pleased to bestow." 

As we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, it would do us a world of good to turn our attention to the labors of those upon whose shoulders we stand. This includes our need to focus on their exegesis in light of the polemics in which they were engaged. As we do, we will find that many of the recent supposed advances in biblical studies are merely retorgrades back to the isogesis of Roman Catholicism from which the Reformers helped set us free. 

Faith Among the Graces: Edwards on Faith and Love

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This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation when the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed a long series of academic debating points about the medieval Roman Catholic penitential system (the 95 theses) to the door of the Wittenberg church. One of the central questions of the Reformation revolved around the nature or essence of saving faith. Is faith in relation especially to the blessing or benefit of justification passive and receptive or is it an active or working faith? Does faith have its own integrity or does it have to be supplemented or completed by another grace?

The Reformation concluded that saving faith, as it is related to justification (i.e. the saving benefit of a sinner being found acceptable in the sight of a holy and righteous God by virtue of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ) is merely receptive. That is, one is justified by placing one's faith in Jesus and that results in the complete forgiveness of one's sins and the obtaining of a right(eous) standing before God. The Reformers determined that the Scriptures taught that faith was the alone instrument or means whereby the sinner unites to and apprehends Christ. While a true and living faith was understood to always be accompanied by all the other saving graces, none of these other graces were taken into consideration by God for his or her justification. It was sola fide or faith alone that was the instrument of justification.

The medieval Roman Catholic church held that saving faith was formed faith. That is, in order for faith to save, it must be formed or perfected by love. In practical terms, one was saved by faith and good works. Luther and the other Reformers recognized that a true and living faith always produced good works but that good works had no part in a proper and biblical understanding of the nature or essence of faith. Faith for Luther and the other Reformers, while accompanied by other graces such as love, was not defective and in need of some corrective such as love.

Over two hundred years later--and across the Atlantic Ocean--New England pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards addressed the question of the relation of faith and love in relation to each other in the thirteenth sermon in the preaching series later published as Charity and its Fruits entitled "Christian Graces Concatenated Together." Edwards has been at the center of a scholarly debate regarding whether or not his concern for sanctification in the Christian life, and specifically his concern with nominalism caused him to compromise his Protestant and Reformed principles about the integrity of justifying faith.

In the 1950s preeminent Edwards scholar Thomas Schafer argued that Edwards had in fact undermined, or called into question, his commitment to a biblical and confessionally Reformed understanding of faith and love in justification. Schafer did not suggest that Edwards intentionally departed from the faith once for all delivered to the saints, but that given his concerns with the new birth and growth in sanctification in the Christian life, he had perhaps accidentally moved away from the gold standard of Reformed orthodoxy. Schafer argued that Edwards embraced a quasi-Roman Catholic understanding of saving faith as formed faith, that is, faith formed by love. It is agreed that Edwards defended the traditional Reformed doctrine of justification in his graduation oration at Yale and in his lecture series on justification delivered at Northampton in 1734. No doubt we will not be able to settle this dispute here and now. However, we can look at how Edwards discusses the relation of faith and love in this sermon to open up for a window into how Edwards thought about this.

Before delving into the specifics of the sermon, we should note the context of this particular sermon. The sermon "Christian Graces Concatenated Together" is the thirteenth of a sixteen sermon series on 1 Corinthians 13, famously known as the "love chapter." I note this in order to point out the direct subject matter is not the doctrine of justification per se, or the nature of justifying faith. Having said this, any confessionally Reformed theologian worth his salt would always have a concern to be as clear and careful as possible when talking about faith (even in a context such as this sermon where the doctrine of justification is not directly in view)--to clearly define faith in such a way as to maintain its integrity as a discrete Christian grace. Faith is a broad biblical category of which justifying faith is one element or facet. What we say about faith more broadly, however, must not undermine what we say more narrowly about justifying faith.

Additionally, I should mention Edwards' emphasis on the integrated nature of the human soul. Edwards moved away from the faculty psychology of his day in which the powers of the human soul (intellect and will) worked concurrently with each other rather than in a reified, hierarchical manner. This means that faith for Edwards was a "whole soul" endeavor. It was not just a matter or the intellect or will alone, but both working together.

Now we can turn to the sermon "Christian Graces Concatenated Together." The main point of the sermon is that whatever Christian graces the Holy Spirit dispenses to Christians, they are chained (this is what concatenation means) together or they occur together or they are interlocked or linked. This is a thoroughly sound and biblical insight. Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 and not fruits. Wherever one fruit such as love, joy, or peace occur, so do others. The Westminster Assembly divines concurred in this (which is a good thing since they were aiming to be biblical!) when they noted that while justification was by faith alone, it was not a faith that was alone. True faith would always be accompanied by every other saving grace. In the case of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is arguing for the supremacy of agape love. In the end, only three graces remain and survive into the eschaton: faith, hope, and love. And, as Paul tells us, the greatest of these is love. Note that this is said by the Apostle of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Edwards tells us three things about the Christian graces: they always appear together, they depend on one another, and they are implied in one another. For our purposes, it is the second and third points that may be most problematic. To say that faith depends upon hope and love in order to be faith or vice versa does seem to suggest that faith does not maintain its own integrity or independence. The further point that faith implies hope and love or implicates them also casts into doubt Edwards' understanding of faith. Edwards goes further and says that love is of the essence of faith or is essential to faith or is an essential ingredient of faith.

One basic Pauline thought at this point is that the fruit of the Spirit, while multifaceted, is singular. We can even recognize a sort of synergy at work in the concatenated graces in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We can go further and say that each grace brings out the best in the others. But, to many, Edwards' language of faith depending upon hope and love to be what it is and to function properly seems to undermine the discrete integrity of faith. Some have suggested that it comes too close to the Roman Catholic notion of formed faith. It is one thing to say that hope and love enrich faith but it is another to say faith depends upon hope and love. This dependency relation suggests that faith cannot function in its own right. That is, faith qua faith, is insufficient. The same thing can be said about implication. Implication suggests that no grace is sufficient as God created them and gives them to his people. Is it logomachy to suggest that impinge might be a better word than imply?

Edwards' concern to stress that Christian graces come together like a floral bouquet is altogether legitimate. But dependency appears to undermine the proper functionality of each grace. Love is not faith--neither is it hope. Implication appears to undermine the discrete integrity of faith, hope, and love. Is Edwards' suggesting in so many words, that the Christian graces interpenetrate one another in a manner analogous to the perichoretic nature of the triune Godhead? He does not say as much in this sermon; but, one is left wonder.

We are left to conclude that while Edwards nowhere affirms in this sermon the medieval Roman Catholic doctrine of formed faith, the logical implication of what he says seems to suggest something similar. Be that as it may, this does not square with what Edwards has written elsewhere about justification by faith alone. I suggest that we have a consistency breakdown in the teaching in this particular sermon.

In conclusion, what we learn from this experiment is that no fallen, sinful Christian theologian can be accepted in everything he teaches or advocates. This is in no way to undermine Edwards' proper due influence. However, with regard to the dependency and implication ideas, Edwards appears to accidentally undermine the biblical and confessionally Reformed notion of justifying faith as passive and receptive and complete in and of itself with its own proper functionality and discrete integrity. The Protestant Reformation recovered a biblical jewel when justification and justifying faith were clarified. Edwards' muddies the waters at this point. So brethren, let's go back behind Edwards to the crystal clear fount of Scripture and the Reformers! 


Dr. Jeff Waddington is the interim pastor at Knox OPC in Landsdowne, PA. He is the author is The Unified Operations of the Human Soul: Jonathan Edwards Theological Anthropology and Apologetic. Jeff is a contributor on the podcast, "East of Eden: The Biblical and Systematic Theology of Jonathan Edwards."

Greenville Conference on Reformed Theology

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This is a personal invitation to come to beautiful Greenville, SC in order to enjoy a new conference joyfully set in the Reformed tradition October 13-15, 2017. Joining me will be Rev. Dr. Harry L. Reeder III of Briarwood Presbyterian Church and Rev Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III of Reformed Theological Seminary. The theme of the Conference is Here We Stand: Justification by Faith

Make this conference a holiday weekend occasion, bring your spouse and enjoy our award winning downtown and the fabulous "Fall for Greenville" food & music festival. Registration includes a banquet and special music on Friday night. A luncheon for pastors is also planned.

Second Presbyterian Church wants to show you Christian Hospitality and minister to you through the Word of God.


Please Register Today.  

Luther's Loyal Son

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Many of us have probably been led to think of the Reformed (and Presbyterian) tradition as being separate and parallel tradition to the Lutheran tradition. There have been those within the modern Reformed tradition and within the Lutheran tradition since at least the 1550s who want us to think of things this way. This was not the story that John Calvin (1509-64) told, however, nor is it the way he saw his relationship to Martin Luther (1483-1546). In light of the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses and the ongoing Calvinist "resurgence," it is worth asking how Calvin himself saw his relationship to Luther and how his perception should influence ours.

Luther was the pioneer of Protestant theology, piety, and practice. He gradually became Protestant in the period between 1513-21 as he lectured through the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and the Psalms again. Reading Augustine as he lectured on the Psalms he realized that the doctrine of man and sin that he had learned in university did not agree with Scripture nor did it agree with Augustine. In the Psalms he saw that human depravity is greater than he had thought and grace is greater, more powerful, and more free than he thought, that God has elected his people to new life and true faith unconditionally, from all eternity (sola gratia). By the end of his lectures on the Psalms he had become young, restless, and Augustinian but he was not yet a Protestant. As he lectured through Romans, he began to see that the basis on which we stand before God is not the sanctity wrought in us by grace and cooperation with grace but Christ's righteousness accomplished outside of us and imputed to us. As he lectured through Galatians he came to see that view confirmed and he began to re-think what he had learned about the role of faith in salvation, that it was not just another virtue formed in us by grace and cooperation with grace. The picture became clearer as he lectured through Hebrews and the Psalms again. Late in life, looking back at his theological development, he said that it was as he lectured through Psalms again that the light went on, as it were, and he realized that it is faith that apprehends Christ, that rests in and receives Christ and his righteousness for us. It is through faith the Spirit unites us to Christ so that he becomes ours and we become his (sola fide).

In this period he also gradually came to see that the traditional way of speaking of law and gospel, i.e., of the "old law" and the "new law" were inadequate. Those categories did not account for the fundamental difference between the law and the gospel as distinct principles and as they relate to sinners. The old scheme had made the entire Bible bad news for sinners. Luther discovered that Scripture contains both bad news and good news for sinners.

His last breakthrough was to see that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the magisterial authority for the Christian faith and life. He saw that whereas the various councils had contradicted themselves, that canon law was endlessly complex, where popes contradicted Scripture and each other, the Scriptures were wonderfully simple and clear on the gospel and the Christian life.

By the time Luther published his justly famous treatise on predestination, On the Bound Will (1525), his theology, piety, and practice had been revolutionized. He was no longer a medieval theologian nor a Roman Catholic, but a Protestant and evangelical theologian and minister.

By the time Luther reached his essential Protestant convictions, Calvin was about 12 years old. He was just beginning a kind of internship toward the priesthood in Noyon. He would not become a Protestant for a little more than another decade, after several years in university. Where Luther was educated in a theology faculty, Calvin was educated in the arts and law faculties. Nevertheless, Calvin, who had originally intended to read theology toward entering the priesthood, retained an interest in theology and read Luther in university. In a passing comment he later remarked that he had been unusually stubborn in his Romanism. His conversion to the Reformation theology seems to have surprised even himself and Luther's writing, categories, and theology played a central role.

In the early 1530s "Lutheran" and "Reformed" were developing categories. The boundaries between them were fuzzy. The divisions between the two traditions, Lutheran and Reformed, would begin to harden in the confessional period beginning in the 1550s but Calvin always saw himself as Luther's loyal son.

The two never met and never even corresponded. Luther became aware of Calvin about 1539 in connection with Calvin's defense of the Reformation and sent well wishes via Melanchthon. Calvin wrote to Luther in 1545 professing his admiration for Luther, whom he described as "the most excellent pastor of the Christian church." He repeatedly called Luther "my father" as he asked him to endorse two treatises he had written to the "Nicodemites," i.e., those who said that they were with the Reformation but who nevertheless remained in the Roman church. Unfortunately, Melanchthon, to whom Calvin had sent the letter, pocketed it and Luther never saw it.

Calvin received as basic Luther's five breakthroughs. In 1543 he wrote to the Emperor, Charles V, "God raised up Luther and others in the beginning [of the Reformation]." He wrote that it was Luther "who carried the torch for us toward re-discovering the way of salvation, who founded our ministry, who instituted our churches." In a volume defending the biblical doctrine of election and reprobation, he described Luther as "a distinguished apostle of Christ." A catalogue of similar expressions of identity with Luther is easily found in Calvin's works.

Calvin's intellectual and spiritual debt to Luther has often been missed by students. Why? The reasons are several but here are three: 1) We have read our post-sixteenth-century loyalties back into the sixteenth-century. 2) Modern Reformed Christians are typically not well read in Luther and thus miss Luther's structural influence on Calvin's theology as well as the allusions to and even verbatim (but unacknowledged) quotations from Luther in Calvin's works. 3) Students of Calvin, particularly in the modern period, have tended to rely almost exclusively on his Institutes where he did not cite contemporary (sixteenth-century) writers by name, which creates a misleading impression about his debt to Luther.

Calvin did criticize Luther's manner and theology. For decades he wrote privately to friends to complain about Luther's rhetoric against the Zürichers. He also complained about those who toadied up to Luther, who refused to stand up to him regarding his rhetoric on the Supper and the two natures of Christ. He resented the expectation among some orthodox Lutherans that the Protestants should unfailingly follow Luther's biblical exegesis without dissent. Finally, Calvin and the Reformed reached different conclusions from Luther (and the Lutherans) on what he called "the rule of worship." In public, however, he was rarely so critical of Luther, whom he praised lavishly, as the one from whom he learned the gospel and the basics of evangelical Christianity.

Why We Are Still Protestant

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This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's nailing of the 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. This act in itself was relatively conventional: he was essentially initiating a debate about the use and abuse of indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church. But the pastoral concerns of this small-town professor set ablaze Europe with the flames of Reformation.

Within a short time it was clear that Luther's concerns had implications far beyond indulgences and relics; they went to the heart of the medieval Roman church. In the years immediately following the publication of his famous theses, Luther had occasion to engage in other highly significant debates on some of these implications. It was in Heidelberg in 1518 that Luther made it clear that humility was the key to salvation and theology. In Leipzig, about a year later, Luther declared that the decrees of the pope and of the church deserved close scrutiny; some were indefensible.

In 1520, Luther wrote treatises challenging the church's view on the sacraments, on justification and good works, and on the relationship between the civil authorities and the authority of the church. During the next year, Luther was summoned to appear before the Imperial Diet of Worms in a last-ditch attempt to get him to recant. He did not.

In further years Luther would turn his attention to the translation of the Bible into German, to the thorny problem of how a congregation freed from the grip of Rome should worship and operate, and to the perennial questions related to Christian work and the Christian family.

These kinds of questions and many more had to be addressed by Luther and the other early Reformers. This should remind us that the reform set in motion 500 years ago this October has a number of far reaching implications. While individual Christians might boil down the core of Protestantism to one or two major points, the reality was and is far more complex.

Over the next few weeks, across all of the websites of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, we'll be surveying many aspects of the Protestant cause. Some of the articles will be historical in nature, giving further detail about the specific figures, events, and debates that shaped the early years after the break from Rome. Some will be theological, bringing clarity to the animating ideas that drove Luther and so many others to pursue the truth of the gospel at great personal cost to themselves. Some will be polemical, making the case explicitly that what was true then is true today.

Our hope is that this series will renew your interest in the Reformation and its implications. But more than renewing interest, we pray that the posts will awaken in you a greater conviction of the importance of this great work of God in the history of the church.

Sometimes the nature of Reformed theology has been summarized by the so-called five solas of the Reformation. These five Latin slogans could be translated as: the Bible alone; grace alone; faith alone; in Christ alone; to the glory of God alone. Ultimately this series of articles, and every article we publish, has one final end in mind: that God would be glorified. As we look back to God's great and gracious work 500 years ago, may God be pleased to use this series to bring about a Reformed awaking in today's church.

The Great Pope Within

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"I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, self." Martin Luther almost certainly never made this statement (though many have falsely attributed it to him). It is, however, an accurate and quite helpful statement, as far as it goes. We all have a great pope within. By nature, none of us wants to submit ourselves to God and the sole authority of His word. All of us enjoy being a law unto ourselves. We're all committed to laying out standards with which we are comfortable--standards that appear to benefit us. We go on to affirm our own standards by finding affinity with others who have similar standards. We then live in an echo chamber of a functional magisterium we have collectively formed. Of course, at the head of this functional magisterium is the pope of self. While this is certainly the mode of operation for unbelievers, it is not entirely eradicated when we are converted. In fact, aspects of this functional Roman Catholicism are ever manifested in the hearts of believers. Here are several ways in which this manifests itself in our everyday experiences. 

1. Penance. In the first of his 95 theses, Martin Luther wrote, "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said "Repent," he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance." Luther felt as though this was necessary on account of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church had built an elaborate system of penitential satisfaction for the forgiveness of sins on a faulty translation of the word μετανοεῖτε. Rather than give it the natural translation "repent," Erasmus had given it the Latin translation from which we derive the English phrase, "Do penance." Luther preached his 1518 Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, in order to show to what great lengths Rome was willing to take the penitential system. Thomas Aquinas had articulated the doctrine of penance in such a way as to include indulgences--"together with vigils, working, [sleeping on a] hard bed, [wearing rough] clothes, etc."--for satisfaction for sin. Johanne Tetzel, the great seller of indulgences and Luther's principle adversary, defended Rome's penitential system in his Against's Luther's Sermon on Indulgences and Grace

All who love the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement--the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ--will rightly revolt at the idea of Rome's penitential system. However, we functionally embrace something of a penitential system when we try to quiet a guilty conscience with good works. There are a thousand ways in which we can fall into this trap. If we haven't been fruitful in our outreach in the community in which we live, we go on a short term mission trip to make up for it. If we haven't been faithful in gathering with the saints for Lord's Day worship, we give more money to the church to cover for our delinquency in worship. No matter what shape or form it takes, we can seek to make satisfaction for our sins by doing more or by doing better, rather than recognizing that God has made satisfaction for our sins by offering up His Son on the cross. This is why we believe, with Luther, that the Christian life is to be one of repentance not penitence

2. Ritualism. Closely aligned to the idea of penitence is the idea of ritualism. Ritualism comes in many shapes and forms. The great danger of ritualism is that it perverts religious rituals that God has instituted in His word by investing in them an efficacy that they do not have in and of themselves. This is most fully exemplified by Roman Catholic sacramentalism. Geerhard Vos explained the nature of sacramentalism when he wrote: 

"Roman Catholics teach concerning a sacrament that it works ex opere operato [worked by the work]. Baptism and the Lord's Supper of themselves do what they are said to do. The cross of Christ does not justify but merely opens justification, makes it possible, and hence the mass. It makes certain merits available that then, however, require a special application to become effective."1

It may seem quite a jump to suggest that we can fall into functional sacramentalism in Protestant churches; however, it is probably far more common than one might suppose. Many years ago, I was a member of a large Presbyterian church that celebrated the Lord's Supper on a monthly basis. After a few months there, I began to realize that attendance was up approximately one-third whenever the Supper was being celebrated. I asked one of my friends why that was the case. He explained that some functionally treat the Lord's Supper exactly the way Rome views the mass. Instead of seeing the word as the central means of grace--and as that which defines the sacrament--they convinced themselves that the Supper was something far more special. In doing so, they functionally embrace a form of sacramentalism. This is just one example of how we too can fall into ritualism. 

3. The Confessional. The Scriptures plainly teach us that we should confess our sins to one another (Matt. 5:24; 18:15; James 5:16) and that we should confess our sins to God (Ps. 51; 1 John 1:8-2:2). The Roman Catholic Church, of course, perverted the intention of this teaching by making the priest the agent of absolution and the confessional an element of penance. Once you go to the priest and confess what you have done, he gives you a series of penitential deeds unto absolution. Protestants have long seen the absurdity of such a perversion of the biblical teaching on confession of sin; however, we are ever in danger of turning our friends into personal priests--and, without going to the Lord in contrition and confession--functionally creating our own confessional. I can easily seek to unburden my guilty conscience by telling a friend what I have done sinfully without going to the Lord for pardon and cleansing (1 John 1:8-2:2). Instead, we ought to confess our sin to those against whom we have sinned, confide in a close friend or pastor with whom we can pray together, and--most importantly--go to God in brokenness knowing that we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One--the propitiation for our sin. 

4. Conscience Binding. Little needs to be said about how prevalent this is in the lives of those of us who attend Protestant churches in our day. How many of us haven't made up our own rules about schooling, food and drink, television and movies, dress, etc. Whenever we subject ourselves to man-made rules and regulations, we are functionally doing the exact same thing that the Roman Catholic Church has been doing as an insitution for well over a thousand years. The doctrine of the liberty of conscience was one of the most precious doctrines to the Reformers for this very reason. It was on account of Rome's perversion of it that the Westminster Divines dedicated an entire chapter to it in the Confession of Faith. There we read those great words: "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship" (WCF 20.2). It was this doctrine that led Luther to make his great "Here I Stand" speach.  

The Christian life is one that can only be lived in dependance on Christ as He is set out in the Scripture. The word of God is the sole authority by which we test all things and to which we hold fast in all matters of faith and practice. If we give him free reign, the great pope within will pervert the clear teaching of Scripture on matters of salvation, worship and the Christian life. We must constantly return to the Scripture to have our minds and hearts renewed in the knowledge of the God who is over all. We must be able to say with Luther, with great conviction and sincerity, "My conscience is captive to the Word of God...to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me." 

1. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics. (R. B. Gaffin, Ed., A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, A. Janssen, ... K. Batteau, Trans.) (Vol. 5, p. 247). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

A Cloud of Reformers

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Our friends, over at Place for Truth, have recently added Simonetta Carr's blog, A Cloud of Witnesses, to their site. Simonetta is writing about the Reformers and those in church history who have influenced them. Her first post is dedicated to the life and legacy of Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562)--the great Italian Reformer. We encourage you to make Simonetta's site a part of your regular reading.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Simonetta, here's a brief bio:

Simonetta Carr was born in Italy and has lived and worked in different cultures. She has written numerous books and contributed to newspapers and magazines around the world. Additionally, she has translated the works of several authors from English into Italian and vice versa. Presently, she lives in San Diego with her husband Thomas and the youngest of her eight children. She is a member and Sunday School teacher at Christ United Reformed Church.

What You're For, What You're Against!

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"Be known for what you're for rather than what you're against." This statement--in various forms--has become something of a Christian cliche over the past decade. Nearly every time I hear it, I wonder if those who so often state it understand the irony of the potential false dilemma that they have inadvertantly created for themselves. Insisting that we should want to be known for what we're for rather than for what we're against includes being known for being against being known for what we're against. You may actually be making a statement akin to that which almost every unbeliever makes when they, in opposition to the Bible's condemnation of sin, misuse the only verse in the Bible that they know, "Judge not..."--which, ironically, is a quite judgmental response.

To be fair, I strongly sympathize with the well intentioned sentiment behind the adage, "Be known for what you're for." I want to be known as a pastor who is for the gospel, for the church, for the Kingdom of God, for life, for marriage, and for a whole list of other God-ordained, and spiritually beautiful things. I'm also for gourmet food, all natural ingredients, and fancy restaurants. But for the good of humanity, I'm against kale chips and turkey bacon. Likewise, for the good of souls and for the good of the church, I'm against false gospels, false worship, false doctrine, and false teachers. Being for biblical things means that we must necessarily be against non-biblical ideas and practice.

Some people have made a career out of controversy. Watch blogs, conspiracy theory websites, and gossip media are all the rage. While the feel-good news stories get circulated around social media with comments such as, "THIS is real news," or "It's about time we see something positive," anyone looking at blog statistics can tell you the most read articles aren't filled with heartwarming testimonies or affirmations of true doctrine. Humans like drama, and even if we say we don't, our Netflix history proves otherwise. It's why the Bible warns us to, "Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths" (1 Timothy 4:7). Those who devote the better part of the life determining what everyone else is doing wrong and saying improperly are a danger to their own soul--and, I would add, aren't much help to others. More often than not, the controversies we allow into our hearts don't serve the great end of conforming us to the image of Christ.

However, in 2017 we celebrate 500 years of protest--something for which I and deeply thankful. The Protestant Reformation was perhaps the most important era of church history since the founding of the church, and it was an era of incredible opposition. Just as the Apostle Paul wrote, "If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:9), it was good and right that men like Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli took on the Roman Catholic Church with its false gospel and practice in order to recover the truth. Yet, the writings of the Reformers weren't entirely polemical. Today, the five Solas of the Reformation are positive affirmations of truth thrown against the background of falsehood. There were certainly times when Luther needed an editor (for instance, the time he wrote against some of his opponents with words like, "For he is an excellent man, as skillful, clever, and versed in Holy Scripture as a cow in a walnut tree or a sow on a harp"1) Nevertheless, the best the Church has offered throughout history has rightly balanced being for what we're for with being against what we're against--rather than to the exclusion of one or the other.

Those who believe that Christians too frequently voice opposition often make reference to the tone or manner in which certain matters are addressed. We cannot forget the biblical imperative to, "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted..." (Ephesians 4:32) and to remember that our speech (and writing) should be, "Good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear" (Ephesians 4:29). We must speak "the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). I confess that I have hammered out emails, blog articles, and social media posts that--while even today I can say were true in content--were a far cry from living up to what Paul exhorts in Ephesians 4. This is the case not just in how I wrote what I wrote, but more grievously, in the intentions of my heart.

The Bible is filled with warnings and prohibitions, and sometimes the best way to understand what is true is to understand and reject what is false. The Church has solidified much of orthodoxy by standing against false teachers and their doctrine. While the Western world moves further down the road of insisting that tolerance (read: "as long as you agree with me") be our battle cry, the growing temptation for Christians is going to be to win friends and influence people by only stating what we're for. However, faithful, God-glorifying Christianity isn't frilly and soft, and our spokesmen aren't supposed to be motivational speakers pumping us full of positive sunshine. I love preaching peacetime sermons full of true, positive affirmations from God's Word. But sometimes the reality of war is present in the text, and if we don't get in the trench and fire back, we're going to die.

[1] Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 41: Church and Ministry III, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 41 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 219.
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The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and WFIL 560 AM have had a long partnership. In addition to broadcasting The Bible Study Hour with James Boice and No Falling Word with Liam Goligher, they are one of the sponsors of this year's Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology taking place in Bryn Mawr April 28-30. Advance registration ends on April 23, we encourage you to attend. 

WFIL's most recent issue of their magazine FaithTalk features articles on the Reformation including "Luther, and the Creative Power of the Word" by Carl Trueman. Carl, co-host on Mortification of Spin, will be joining us as a conference speaker at PCRT. His article is shared here with permission. 


Luther, and the Creative Power of the Word
The importance of Luther to the Christian faith cannot be overstated. For many today, he is probably a figure who looks larger as a symbol of defiance or a heroic rebel against a corrupt church and decadent theology.There is much truth in such images. His stand at the Diet of Worms was a remarkable act of courageous defiance. And his theology represented nothing less than a self-conscious attempt to overthrow the medieval thought which he had been taught and replace it with a comprehensive understanding of God and the gospel as refracted the incarnate and crucified Christ.

Yet there is more to Luther. Indeed, perhaps his greatest contribution to the faith, and one that we can still learn from today, is his understanding of God's Word. When we hear this term, our modern evangelical minds typically go to the contemporary debates about inerrancy, infallibility, interpretation and the like. Certainly such questions are legitimate. But for Luther the central point about the Word of God was its creative power. God's speech is the means by which he does things - makes, destroys, blesses, curses.

The idea of the Word as creative is particularly evident in Luther's Lectures on Genesis.  In reflecting upon Genesis 1, Luther is constantly mesmerized by the fact that God's Word is what brings creation into being, what makes one type of creature out of material which cannot naturally do such - as in birds emerging from the waters on the fifth day. God says and it comes to be. The Word is a powerful, creative force.

This, of course, underlies his most famous of doctrines: justification by grace through faith. Unlike medieval notions of justification, where God's declaration that the believer is righteous is rooted in some quality intrinsic in the believer, Luther famously makes this a matter of extrinsic declaration. Sinners are righteous because God has externally declared them to be so, no matter what their actual, real outward condition might appear to indicate. I may be a thief and a liar but, if I turn and put my trust in Christ, I am clothed in his righteousness and God's Word will declare me innocent.  And this ties in with his understanding of the love of God. As he said in the last theological thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518, the love of God does not find but creates that which is lovely to it. How does it do so? By the Word.

I would suggest that this is one aspect of Luther's theology which both pastors and congregations can benefit from meditating upon. For the pastor who preaches, the idea that when he declares God's Word he is not simply describing a state of affairs but is actually confronting people with God's Word in a manner that can and must transform them should surely be an awe-inspiring, exciting, and humbling thing. In the pulpit, Luther did not think he was simply explaining the Bible.He was blessing those who turned to Christ and cursing those who turned away from him, carrying some to heaven and shutting the gates of paradise to those who simply hardened their hearts. And congregants should go to church with a sense of expectation.  They go to church not simply to learn the Bible better - they can do that by sitting at home and reading good commentaries. No, they go to hear God's Word in all of its powerful, untamable creativity.   

The Word of God preached for blessing and for cursing - that is the heart of Luther's practical and theological Reformation.

A few weeks ago, I participated in a conference which explored the promise that careful attention to Protestantism's past holds for Protestantism's future. It was exciting to see scholars, students, and interested laypersons gathered around a common concern for the future of our various Reformation-based communions, and a common conviction that our past holds significant resources for navigating the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Too many of this years Reformation-themed events, I fear, will prove to be little more than Protestant pep rallies, championing slogans rather than critical engagement with the past. Such pep rallies will likely do more long-term damage than good to Protestantism, leaving folk enthused but neither informed about Protestantism's core convictions nor equipped to maintain those convictions moving forward. The pep rallies will draw large crowds and turn large profits for those hosting them. But the enthusiasm they generate will fade away (like the proverbial "camp high," or the applause at the end of a celebrity Christian's conference talk), and will leave the formerly enthused exposed to stock criticisms of Protestantism and susceptible to the siren call of communions with purportedly deeper roots, greater stability, more serious or beautiful worship of God, etc. The smaller events characterized by genuinely thoughtful conversation about where we've come from and where we're going will draw smaller crowds, but will serve the church far better in the long run. "C'est la vie," as Calvin never said at a conference he never spoke at.

In any case, one of the issues that generated much conversation among those who attended this conference last weekend was that of how Protestants should understand and properly relate to Protestant tradition as well as the broader (catholic) Christian tradition from whence Protestantism originated. How, in other words, can we respect and afford due weight to the theological ruminations and the practices of our forefathers in every age without turning those ruminations and practices into a doctrinal and/or liturgical straightjacket in our age? How can we steer a safe path between the Scylla of those who elevate Tradition to the status of an infallible voice in the life of the church and the Charybdis of the chronological snobs who would, without a second thought, gag the saints who have gone before us?

In chewing over these questions the past several days, it seems to me that a healthy understanding and appropriation of both our Protestant and our larger, catholic past corresponds with a right understanding of Scripture's authority and the respective roles that individual interpreters and ecclesiastical bodies play in the interpretation of Scripture's teaching. We need, in other words, to be clear on what the Protestant principle sola Scriptura means (and, perhaps more significantly, doesn't mean) before we can think clearly about how to approach tradition.

Fortunately, good resources exist for helping us understand precisely what sola Scriptura meant to the reformers who established that principle and the orthodox divines of subsequent centuries who upheld it, as well as what it should (but doesn't always) mean to us as present-day Protestants. Keith Mathison's The Shape of Sola Scriptura (2001) and Michael Allen and Scott Swain's Reformed Catholicity (2015) should, I think, be required reading for every person signing on the dotted line of Protestantism in our time. Both works do an excellent job of defining sola Scriptura, and of pointing us, in that process, towards a right way of understanding and appropriating "tradition" in its various manifestations.

But we would be remiss (particularly so, given the topic at hand) not to note older resources that might help us think carefully about what Protestantism's claim regarding Scripture's ultimate authority has and hasn't meant in Protestant history (and thus, should and shouldn't mean today!). One such resource, easily accessible online both in its original Latin and in English translation, is John Calvin's 1547 work Acta synodi Tridentinae cum antidoto ("Acts of the Synod of Trent with the Antidote").

Calvin wrote his "antidote" to Trent in 1547, one year after the Council of Trent had clarified Rome's understanding of the respective authority of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church's Magisterium. Needless to say, perhaps, Calvin was keen to discredit Rome's insistence upon granting Tradition an equal role with Scripture in speaking infallibly into the life of the Church, and her insistence upon naming the Magisterium as the infallible interpreter of both Tradition and Scripture. But he was equally keen to make it clear that he and his fellow reformers had no intent of disregarding insights into Scripture's meaning advanced by the church in the previous 1500 years. Indeed, they had every intention, he argues, of submitting entirely to the authority of those insights.

"In order to cast obloquy upon us," Calvin writes, "they are wont to charge us with arrogating the interpretation of Scripture to ourselves, in order that there may be no check on our licentiousness. [...] [But] there is none of us who does not willingly submit his lucubrations to the judgment of the Church. Therefore we neither contemn the authority of the Church; nor do we give loose reins to men to dare what they please."

The force of Calvin's rather remarkable statement here is considerably lessened by the rather unfortunate, 19th century choice to translate the latin lucubrationes with "lucubrations," an obvious English derivative of its Latin counterpart, but a word that no normal person knows. Strictly speaking, "lucubrations" name the results of study by lamplight. In context, it's clear that Calvin is referring to insights into Scripture's meaning obtained by evangelicals, insights obtained not by facile appeals to Spirit-induced aha! moments but by Spirit-led labor late into the night. In other words, lucubrationes refer to careful and informed judgments regarding Scripture's meaning. And, remarkably, Calvin insists upon the willingness of all within the evangelical party to submit those judgments to the church's judgment regarding Scripture's meaning.

Of course, Calvin's comment raises the question "who or what is meant by 'church'?" Although he doesn't unpack the point in much detail here, it's clear that Calvin has a more expansive understanding of "church" than his Roman opponents. His opponents, he notes, include in their definition of "church" only those who acknowledge "Cephas as [the church's] head," and ultimately encourage all, in aiming to understand Scripture, to submit themselves to "whatever dreaming monks" determine Scripture to say. When Calvin speaks of the "church," he has in mind rather the "Church [that] Scripture itself portrays," a body that, for instance, includes the vast number of Christians through the centuries who would not have been able to give unequivocal support to the claims made regarding Rome by Trent.

In any case, I wonder how many Protestants today would be willing to admit Calvin's point regardless of how "church" is properly defined? How many Protestants today, that is, could (or would) insist upon their own readiness to submit their determinations about Scripture's meaning to "the judgment of the Church." Calvin's argument does not disallow individuals to obtain new insights into Scripture's meaning, nor to share them with others. It does, however, force the individual to bow before the authority of a collective majority in assessing such insights, a pill few individuals in our time will swallow easily. Self-idolatry in our day very often takes the form of every individual thinking that he or she knows best, even (or perhaps especially) in the matter of reading and understanding God's Word.

Perhaps, as Protestants, its time we got our lucubrations in line. Doing so might give us a more credible position against the extravagant claims of Rome regarding her right and ability to translate the Bible. It might, for instance, give us a more credible response to the charge that Protestantism creates 900 million popes over against Rome's one. The sooner we tame our lucubrations the better. The health and future of Protestantism may depend on it.

Theology for Beggars (Part 1)

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On February 19th the "scrawny shrimp," as he was affectionately called, stood startled, as his lecture on Romans was interrupted by news no one wanted to hear. Hardly able to gather himself, Philip Melanchthon tearfully announced to his students assembled in the great hall at Lutherhause, "Ach, obiit auriga et currus Israel!" (Alas, the charioteer of Israel has fallen!")

Biographer Roland Bainton suggests Martin Luther had done the work of five men in his lifetime. By February 18th, 1546, it caught up with him. Returning from a trip to Eisleben, marked by weeks of efforts to reconcile two brother counts of Mansfeld, his heart was failing him. The weather had been terribly disagreeable. This didn't help. Luther, admittedly feeling his age and frailty, wearily took ill. As the story goes, his companions managed to find lodging for him in a nearby house. His condition worsening, one of them asked, "Dr. Luther, do you want to die standing firm on Christ and the doctrine you have taught." Breaking his labored breathing of prayer and scriptures, a distinct "Ya!" leaped from his lips. Between 2-3am, Luther died a good death - full circle, in the very town in which he was born 62 years prior.

One of the most telling pieces to this dramatic conclusion to a dramatic earthly journey is a note Luther scratched out just two days earlier. Knowing his dire condition, he penned something of a humble epilogue to his life, churchmanship, the Scripture he adored, and the "doctrine he had taught:"

"No one can understand Virgil in his Bucolics and Georgics unless he has spent five years as a shepherd or farmer. No one understands Cicero in his letters unless he has served under an outstanding government for twenty years. No one should believe that he has tasted the Holy Scriptures sufficiently unless he has spent one hundred years leading churches with the prophets. That is why: 1. John the Baptist, 2, Christ, 3. The Apostles were a prodigious miracle. Do not profane this divine Aeneid, but bow down to it and honor its vestiges."1

This note, which Luther wrote in Latin, is concluded by a burst of German, "Wir sind alle Bettler." Then--resuming the Latin--Luther wrote, "Hoc est verum."   ("We are all beggars. This is true.")

2017 is the year of all things Luther, as we mark the 500th anniversary of the day that often ostentatious Augustinian monk walked the better part of a mile, from the University of Wittenberg to the door of the Schlosskirche, and posted his Ninety-Five Theses. The door was often used for making public notice of academic and religious matters. In one sense, this was no different from other such postings. In another sense--as history shows--nothing would ever be the same.

Having traced Luther's steps in Wittenberg on a tour through Germany many years ago, I have often thought about that rather straight mile as just one part of an expansive trajectory of a beggarly theology. Amidst the bustle around various celebratory Lutherpaloozas and conferences, books, t-shirts, and even a Playmobile Martin Luther action figure (yes, I am a proud owner of one), we honor him best by reminding ourselves we are, indeed, beggars, and that true theologians are theologians of the cross, humbled at the surprising notion of God's glory revealed in weakness.

When I went to the sites of Luther's life all those years ago, I took my prized first edition of Bainton's Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. I carried it around, from the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, where monk Luther trembled and stumbled through his first mass, to the Wartburg Castle, where he translated the New Testament from Greek to German and effectively placed the Reformation in the laps of milkmaids and cobblers. I suppose in my mind I was adding to the specialness of my copy of Here I Stand by reading it, town to town, where it all happened.

I want to welcome you to walk with me this year as I share my interest in some of the books that have helped me--select biographies old and new (in which there will be more honesty than mere hagiography), theological analyses (accessible to academic), sources primary and secondary, that give us a taste of the gospel bread for which Luther lived his life learning to beg. We will pause along the way to consider some of the contours of Luther's thought in the context of his own life and ministry. The door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg opened the way to a disputation in Heidelberg some six months later in April of 1518, better showing us the beggarliness of a theology grounded in suffering and the cross. The stand that Luther took at Worms led to the Scripture that he translated at Wartburg. That, quite literally, is just the beginning. There is much more to see along the way!

In the next post, we will consider some volumes that help make up a good "starter kit" for building a Luther library. Until then, if you've already read Bainton, even if not while enjoying pizza at the little cafe across from the Theses-engraved doors at the Castle Church in Wittenberg, then let me suggest you now move on to Carl Trueman's Luther on the Christian Life.

1. See Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) p. 166
I've been preparing a talk on Luther and education for a conference this summer, and so have been reviewing Luther's 1524 "To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany, That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools." In examining this work, I've been especially struck by Luther's plea for a stronger dose of history in the curriculum of Germany's schools. "Among the chief books [needed for the education of German youth]," the reformer writes, "[are] chronicles and histories, in whatever language they may be had; for they are of wondrous value for understanding and controlling the course of this world, and especially for noting the wonderful works of God."

Luther particularly notes the need for national history in the school curriculum, and laments the lack of reliable German histories extant for that purpose. "How many fine tales and maxims we should have today of things that took place and were current in German lands, not one of which is known to us, simply because there was no one to write them down, and no one to preserve the books had they been written." Luther compared Germany rather unfavorably to ancient peoples in this regard, noting that "the Greeks and Romans and even the Hebrews recorded their history so accurately and diligently that if but a woman or a child did or said anything unusual, all the world must read and know it."

As intimated above, Luther viewed a knowledge and understanding of history as fodder for praise. God is sovereign over human history. Knowledge of history, then, equals knowledge of God's past doings. But Luther also demonstrated rather profound insight into a truth that philosophers of history have only recently made much noise about: the truth that history -- or more specifically, national history -- plays a crucial role in shaping national identity, and so too national mores. Indeed, history owns at least as much, if not more, power to shape national identity as shared language, ethnicity, and/or rituals. Luther, in other words, intuitively grasped the reality that--as Carter Lindberg puts it--"history is the thread of community identity" in much the same way that "memory is the thread of personal identity."

Most of us, I suspect, have known someone who has lost his or her memory (whether suddenly or gradually), and so have witnessed the loss of personal identity that follows from the dissolution of one's own story in life. Uncharacteristic (and sometimes rather unethical) behavior often follows from such a loss of memory and identity. But, as Luther keenly observes, communities that lose the thread of their identity -- i.e., their (hi)story -- are equally prone to unethical behaviors that communities with a stronger sense of their own narrative might resist. In Luther's words: "That [namely, a lack of national German histories] is why nothing is known... about us Germans, and we must be content to have all the world call us German beasts, who know only how to war, gorge, and guzzle." Warring, gorging, and guzzling, it seems, are the obvious activities of a story-less people.

Such insight into the connection between history, national identity, and public mores is, as noted, rather profound for a person writing in 1524. It sets Luther well ahead of the pack of popular historians in our day who typically discover nothing in history but material to mine for moral examples -- the historians who, for instance, seem bent on commodifying the Reformation this year as thoroughly as the constituencies who support them have commodified the Gospel in the rather dire course of American evangelicalism.

Of course, most things Luther thought and said are rather profound. In any case, Luther's grasp of the connection between history and public mores deserves recognition in any account of the role he played as educational reformer. This seems a fitting year to give him that recognition.

Reformation 101: Priests in Jesus

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Having recently passed the 499th anniversary of Luther's posting of the 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, there is great anticipation of the 500th celebration of this momentous event and the Reformation that it catalyzed. We typically summarize the Reformation by the five solas - the Scriptures alone teach us that sinners are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. But there was another key theme recovered by the Reformers, intimately connected to those solas (particularly the last one), that is forgotten and denied on a practical level even today: the priesthood of all believers.

In the 16th century, the Roman church divided mankind into two groups, the "spiritual estate" and the "temporal estate." The former consisted of those involved in "full time Christian ministry," who were closest to God and salvation because of their positions in the church. The latter was the common folk, who only had access to God, His word and salvation through the clerics and the sacraments. To this way of thinking and living, the Reformers shouted "No!" In his 1520 book, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther declared, "All Christians whatsoever really and truly belong to the religious class, and there is no difference among them except in so far as they do different work." Additionally, John Calvin stated, "In Christ we are all priests, but to offer praises and thanksgiving, in short, to offer ourselves and ours to God" (Institutes, IV.xix.28). The Second Helvetic Confession (chapter 18) affirmed this teaching as well: "To be sure, Christ's apostles call all who believe in Christ 'priests,' but not on account of an office, but because, all the faithful having been made kings and priests, we are able to offer up spiritual sacrifices to God through Christ (Exod. 19:6; I Peter 2:9; Rev. 1:6). Therefore, the priesthood and the ministry are very different from one another..."

Where did the Reformers get this teaching? From the Scriptures alone, of course. I Peter 2:4-10 is one of the clearest declarations of the priesthood of all believers in the whole Bible. Peter, writing to the church, says that we "are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood." We are "a royal priesthood." But Peter didn't make this language up; rather, he got it from the Old Testament, in particular Exodus 19. Before God forms the Aaronic priesthood, He says that the whole nation was a kingdom of priests. Out of all the nations, Israel had nearness of access to God, was set apart to serve God, to represent God to the nations, and the nations to God. Peter is taking OT language and is applying it to the church, made up primarily of the Gentile nations. The church of Jesus Christ, saved from every tribe, tongue, people and nation, is a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession.

Such a status isn't because of anything in us, but only through a faith union with Jesus Christ - "As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood...This precious value, then is for you who believe..." (I Peter 2:4-5, 7). It's as we are joined to Jesus by faith alone apart from obedience to the law that we become a brick in this spiritual temple for the purpose of being a priest. The priesthood of all believers is intimately connected with that other key Reformation truth, justification by faith alone. Just as the priests in the OT were washed with clean water before putting on their priestly garments, so we have been washed in the blood of Christ and clothed in His righteousness. Peter is saying to the nations who have trusted in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, "You are connected with Israel of old; you have inherited all the promises and privileges and responsibilities that God gave to Israel! You've been called for the same purpose, redeemed by the same God, committed to the same response."

So what are the privileges and responsibilities that come with our priesthood in Jesus? First, we are called to worship and intercede. Peter is clear: as priests, we offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. We "proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light" (I Peter 2:9). In the words of Hebrews 13:15, through Jesus we offer a sacrifice of praise to God, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name, for we remember that once we are not a people, but now we are by His mercy the people of God (I Peter 2:10). We do not need any other human intermediary but Jesus; through Him we can draw near confidently to the throne of grace. This means we do not need to go to a confessional to confess our sins. It means that we are not spectators but participants in corporate worship. And it means we intercede for one another. Like the priests of old carried the names of God's people into the holy place, like Jesus ever lives to intercede for His own, so we in Christ can pray for one another, and God hears the prayers of the saints as quickly as He hears the prayers of pastors.

Second, we are to fulfill our vocation to the glory of God. Here we're thinking about worship more broadly. That is, in whatever God calls us to do, we can and we must do it to His glory, for His sake, as unto Him. Colossians 3:23-24, "Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve." In the Reformers' day, only those who worked for the church or the monastery or convent were seen as doing God's work. But the Reformers read passages like Romans 12:1-2 and said that as priests, in view of God's mercies, all Christians are to present their bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, as their spiritual service of worship. To be sure, Jesus has instituted in His church the offices of elder and deacon; but those who hold these special offices are not special people; you don't need to be a missionary or pastor or ruling elder or deacon to serve God.

One could be a salesman, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, an engineer, a mechanic, a computer technician, an accountant, a waitress, a grocery clerk, a carpenter, a farmer, a banker, a student - whatever our calling, if it is lawful and legitimate, it is pleasing to God, and we can and ought to glorify God in it by fulfilling the creation mandate to exercise dominion over the creation, to subdue the earth. We are to use the gifts that God has given us, to bring order out of chaos, to create value and delight for those we serve, to do our work with excellence, beauty, creativity and skill. Soli Deo Gloria is true not just when we think about our salvation, but when we think about our calling in creation. Just as "holy to the Lord" was inscribed on the turban of the OT priests, so "holy to the Lord" is to be written across our entire lives.

Third, missions and evangelism. In Exodus 19:4-6, as Christopher Wright has argued in his book The Mission of God, God is not declaring a condition of Israel's salvation; rather, it's a condition of Israel's mission. By keeping the covenant they would continue to be set apart from the world, and so be able to mediate the presence and blessing of the Lord as a light to the nations. As a kingdom of priests, Israel was to represent God to the nations in holy conduct, bringing God's word and glory to the nations around them; and they were to represent the nations to God, interceding on their behalf, making provision for the nations to find God through the atoning sacrifices. They were to be a vehicle of salvation for the nations; all the earth was the Lord's, but God had set Israel apart within the world the way a priest was set apart within the community.

In the same way, we who belong to Jesus are called to be a blessing to the nations; we exist for the sake of the world around us. God calls us to intercede for the nations, bringing them to God, and to bring the light of the gospel to the nations, that they might have fellowship with God through the atonement of Jesus. Our worship declares to the world that God is more satisfying and desirable than anything in this life, and we call our neighbors to repent of their idolatries and trust in Jesus alone. I Peter 2:11 tells us that as aliens and strangers in this world we are to abstain from fleshly lusts, living holy lives, consistent with our status as priests. And our holy lives will be a means by which the Gentiles around us will be converted, or without excuse on the last day (I Pet. 2:12).

The truth is, whether in our worship, our vocation, or our evangelism, we often don't do a very good job of being the priest we have already been made by Christ. This is precisely why we need Jesus as our great High Priest! With that confidence, we cry out to the Lord to enable us to cling to this doctrine as a most precious inheritance of our Reformation forbears, and use it for His glory, walking as priests in Jesus every day of our life.


Related Resources

Colin J. Bulley The Priesthood of Some Believers
Mark Dever "The Priesthood of All Believers: Reconsidering Every Member Ministry," in John H. Armstrong ed. The Compromised Church (Crossway, 1998)

The Missing Message

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While preparing talks for a forthcoming Reformation Conference, I happened across Heiko Oberman's outstanding 1961 Theology Today lecture, "Preaching and the Word in the Reformation," in which he set down what he believed to have been the three most important aspects of the preaching among the Reformers: (1) the sermon as apocalyptic event; (2) the sermon as corporate act of worship; and (3) the relation of the written and the spoken Word of God. It is the first of these to which I wish to give further consideration. 

After dispelling the myth that preaching had disappeared prior to the Reformation, Oberman suggested that one of the things that was unique about the preaching of the Reformers was that it was an apocalyptic event, in which "the sermon...absorbed the medieval sacrament of penance." What the Roman Catholic Church had taken out of the preaching of the Gospel and put into the hands of the priests, the Reformers took out of the hands of the priests and put it back into the preaching of the Word and Gospel. The Reformers believed that in the true preaching of the Gospel the eternal realties of Heaven and Hell come breaking into time and space, by which the hearers are confronted by God. As sinners are confronted with their sin and the holiness of God, they are brought before the Divine tribunal in order to show them the need they have for redemption and forgiveness.  

Moving on from the confrontation of the word, Oberman insisted that "the function of the sermon is to provide proper doctrinal information especially as regards the first and second advent of Jesus Christ." The preaching of Christ is central to the preaching of the Reformation because, as the Reformers understood, "the sermon does not inspire good inclinations, but moves the doors of Heaven and Hell." Oberman summed up this aspect of Reformation preaching when he acquiesced with the essence of pietistic preaching: "Where the Word is preached and man encounters Christ, he is forced to answer 'Yes' or 'No.'" Since all of these things are so, we must understand that true preaching is, "God's last word, to which no syllable will be added." Oberman brought his thoughts on the apocalyptic nature of preaching to a close by explaining how the true preaching of the word brings assurance to believers. He wrote:

For this reason the Reformation could preach the certitudo salutisthe certainty of salvation, because he who will judge us is the same who fulfilled the law. In the words of Calvin: "When a Christian looks into himself he finds cause to be afraid or even to despair...[But] he will win a sure hope of eternal perseverance when he considers that he belongs to Him who cannot fall or fail." It gives pause to realize that this message which proved to lend the Reformation movement its reconciling and liberating power has virtually disappeared from the Protestant pulpit.

Here, two things stand out to me as being of prime importance. First, only the preaching of the Reformation can hold forth the assurance of salvation. The greatest of all differences between the preaching of Rome and the preaching of the Reformation lies in this: "the Reformation could preach the...certainty of salvation, because he who will judge us is the same who fulfilled the law." If that aspect of preaching is missing from our churches then we will never hold out to despairing sinners the peace for which their souls so desperately long. 

Second, Oberman made the sobering observation that "this message...has virtually disappeared from the Protestant pulpit." While recognizing that he was referring to the mainline Protestant churches of his day (which were, incidentally, at their heyday in the 1960's), we must also recognize that the same can be said of so many churches in our own day. Rome continues to be void of this all-important aspect of preaching. Liberal Protestant churches maintain the strongest possible distaste for it. Most concerning of all, however, is the realization that the better part of self-professed evangelical churches have abandoned the preaching of the Reformation. From the pulpit, churches that claim affinity with the Reformation are proving themselves to be virtually antithetical to the Reformers. In so many churches in our day, the psychological and social are trumpeted instead of Heaven and Hell, the court of public opinion rather than the Divine tribunal and a sophisticated call to self-atonement through humanitarianism rather than forgiveness of sins through the atoning death of Jesus. We should be appalled at the paltry nature of what flies under the name of preaching today. We should long for preaching that brings men and women before the eternal tribunal, that sets out Jesus Christ in His saving fulness and that calls sinners to respond to Him in faith and repentance. It is then, and only then, that we will know the same "reconciling and liberating power" that was heard and felt in the days of the Reformers. 
CD20_Logo_withType.jpg
Twenty years ago, in April 1996, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals held its first major meeting of evangelical scholars. The Cambridge Declaration, first presented at this meeting, is a call to the evangelical church to turn away from the worldly methods it has come to embrace, and to recover the biblical doctrines of the Reformation. Out of that first meeting came seminars and a book of essays, Here We Stand, which further addressed the points of that call.


20 years later, it's worth asking:
  • Is the Protestant Reformation over?
  • Aren't the five Reformation solas a footnote in religious history with little to no bearing on modern ministry and life?
  • Is the Cambridge Declaration still relevant?

We think it is and we're doing something exciting about it!

We're working on a new book, edited by Michael Johnson, with the following authors:
Michael Horton
James Boice (previously published content)
David Wells
Aimee Byrd
Carl Trueman
(and others)

Sign-up to receive updates. In the coming weeks we will be sharing news on the publisher, additional contributors, release date, and more.

Text Links:
http://www.alliancenet.org/cambridge-declaration
http://reformedresources.org/reformation-sunday/here-we-stand/
http://www.alliancenet.org/CD20

Use of the "five solas" -- sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo, and soli Deo gloria -- to collectively summarize Reformation theology is apparently a twentieth-century thing. The reformers, to be sure, used these phrases (or very similar ones) to communicate distinct truths about Scripture's authority, God's initiative in salvation, the sufficiency of Christ's work for sinners, and faith's role in appropriating Christ and his benefits. They just never listed them the way we do today (or referred to them as the "five solas") to summarize the content of their objections to both Roman Catholic and radical perspectives of their day. Employed thus in our day, the solas -- like most summaries of the teaching of a given thinker or movement (think TULIP) -- can be simultaneously useful and misleading. Such summaries can, of course, lead us to overlook important aspects of a thinker or movement's teaching. The five most commonly noted solas, for example, fail to reflect in any substantial way Reformation gains made in ecclesiology and/or sacramentology. Noting as much, some recent persons have argued that sola ecclesia (at the very least) should be included in recitations of the solas, thus acknowledging the reformers' joint commitment to the (true) visible church's indispensability for salvation (see for example WCF 25.2).

If voting on who or what might make the solas cut is still open, I'd like to nominate "ears alone" for inclusion in the cast. I base this on Luther's observation in his biblical commentaries that "the ears alone (solae aures) are the organs of a Christian man." Such a claim might initially surprise present day evangelical Christians, since ears can neither read the Bible, nor pray, nor perform positive works of service towards others, things Christians presumably do. Why honor the ears thus?

Luther's privileging of the ears rested on his recognition that "faith comes through hearing" (Rom. 10.17). It rested, in other words, on his observation that God has appointed preaching as the peculiar means of creating and sustaining faith in those whom he has purposed to save. After all, the very same God who spoke the world into existence (Gen. 1.1-2.7) brought life to dead bones through the instrument of his prophet's proclamation (Ez. 37.1-14). That same God brings life to dead hearts, thereby creating faith, in our age of redemptive history through the proclamation of properly ordained ministers (those "sent" to "preach" in Rom. 10.15). "For if you ask a Christian what the work is by which he becomes worthy of the name 'Christian'," Luther's comment reads in context, "he will be able to give absolutely no other answer than that it is the hearing of the Word of God, that is, faith. Therefore, the ears alone are the organs of a Christian man."

The slogan "ears alone," then, emphasizes the critical role that preaching occupies in God's economy of salvation. It also, however, reinforces the truth that salvation is God's gift, not something we earn or seize through any endeavors of our own. Luther contrasts the ears not primarily with the eyes (by which we read) or mouth (by which we pray), but with the hands and feet, by which we work. "God no longer requires the feet or hands or any other member; He requires only the ears." Hearing is a passive enterprise, at least in comparison to the things we do when we put other body parts to use (hands, feet, mouth, etc.). The (relatively) passive posture we assume when God's word is preached is most appropriate, since that word's content is a stark reminder that we contribute nothing to our salvation.  

In sum, then, "ears alone" -- with its emphasis upon the method God employs (and the corresponding posture we should assume) in translating sinners into the Kingdom of his Son -- stands to complement the others solas with their emphases upon the message (namely, that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to God's glory alone) and Scripture's unique status as the source and norm of that message. Solae aures may not, admittedly, roll off the tongue quite so smoothly as sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo, and soli Deo gloria. But, if added to the solas roster, it would serve to preserve important Reformation emphases that are ever susceptible to neglect or abandonment.

Registering a protest

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For what it is worth, and taking account of the fact that the series has yet to run its course, I would like publicly to distance myself from the stance that has been taken in the recent articles on Evangelicals and Catholics Together over on the corresponding page. I hope that this protest is not interpreted as a matter of insecurity with regard to my doctrine or a lack of confidence in my confessional standards. It is intended rather as the reverse.

I will not be surprised to find the Roman Catholic contributor standing for what he believes, and that would be his prerogative. I hope that Carl Trueman's contributions to First Things will not have blunted his edge. However, I am persuaded that what Mr George calls "a shared life in Jesus Christ" presumes a shared faith in the Christ of the Bible, with the whole biblically defined, and that such a shared faith in the Christ set forth in the gospel is absent from Roman Catholic dogma to the extent that salvation in the Roman Catholic communion would be despite rather than because of official Roman Catholic teaching. Mr George is also free to believe what he believes, but I am not persuaded that his dangerous convictions need to be so publicised.

"Timothy George (a Baptist)" does not represent this Baptist, and I imagine - I sincerely pray - that he does not represent a good number of other Reformation21 readers. I do not know where this series originated and I do not think that an apologia for ECT and the implied soft-pedalling of damning doctrine, under any guise, is worthy of page-space at a website dedicated to Reformation principles. As far as I am concerned, that is a "conversation" that has already taken place, and my notions of the appropriate "dialogue" are evidently different from those of others.

I am not sure, at this point, what else to say - this is a brief and rapid response. I am not necessarily speaking for anyone else and neither am I accusing my fellow-bloggers of fiddling while Rome burns (yes, I know). It may be just me. Here I stand, and all that ...

That bad old Reformation...

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Channel 4, one of the UK's network TV channels, has recently been running a history of Christianity, fronted by some well-known figures. I have already blogged on the first episode, which pretty much argued that Christianity is anti-Semitic at heart. You can read my piece here. The latest episode was presented by Ann Widdecombe, Conservative MP, who converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1994. She is presenting the episode on the Reformation, which ought to be of interest to readers of Reformation 21, and not least in this significant anniversary year. Her take is predictable, casting Protestants past and present in the worst light possible. While she argues that the need for a Reformation was pressing, its development owed more to power, greed, lust and politics than to theology, and it was a thoroughly bad thing. The episode can be seen for thirty days after transmission (which was February 8th) on the Channel 4 website, here. You have been warned!

"It takes no courage to sign up as a Protestant. To live by the truths of historic Protestantism, however, is an entirely different matter. That takes courage in today's context."

Why? Wells answers:

"The truths of historic Protestantism are sometimes no more welcome in evangelicalism than they are in the outside culture."

from The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Eerdmans, 2008).