The Government and the Christian (Luther)

 The Christian faith is not opposed to civil authority.  For example, Scripture calls followers of Jesus to respect authority, pray for leaders in positions of authority, and live peaceful lives for the benefit of society.  In fact, it is a proper interpretation of the fifth commandment to include obedience to those in authority over us.  Martin Luther understood this when he gave instructions on the fifth commandment and civil government.  Here’s a summary of what he said in light of that commandment and Romans 13:

[We owe the government] first, the payment of taxes, namely that each shall give the authorities such money and labor as is required of him.

Second, respect, that is, that we have sincere respect for government….

The third duty we owe government is honor.  …This means, first, that we recognize that government is from God and that through it he gives us much greater benefits.  For if God did not maintain government and justice in the world, the devil, who is a murderer, would everywhere bring about murder, so that none of us could be sure of life, wife, or children.

But God sustains government and through it gives peace and punishes and guards against the wicked, so that we may support wife and children, bring up children in the discipline and knowledge of God, have security in our homes and on the streets, that each may help the other, and communicate and live with another.  Such gifts are altogether of heaven, and God desires that we consider and recognize them as gifts of God.  He desires us to honor government as a servant of his and to show gratitude to it because through it God gives us such great benefits.  …If you knew that someone had saved your child from death, you would thank him warmly.  Why then are you not grateful to the government which saves you, your children, your wife, daily from murder?  If the government did not restrain the wicked, when could we be secure?

Luther goes on to note how we should pray for the government.  He also writes that it is true that some people abuse the ordinance of government, but government itself is not a bad thing since God instituted it.  It’s similar to marriage: sometimes marriage is abused by the wicked, but marriage itself is not wicked since it is an ordinace of God.

I appreciate Luther’s perspective on government.  It is true that no country is perfect.  There are sinful people in every government and every government rules over sinful people – that’s not a good mix!!  But when a government maintains even relative justice and relative peace in the land, we can thank God for that. It’s a common grace blessing.  Here in the United States there are many aspects of our government’s policies and laws that I disagree with, but I’m very glad that my family can sleep safely every night.  I’m also glad that I almost never have to worry about violent crime.  Reminder to self: Thank God more often for the protection and safety our government provides!

[Of course, there are governments that are so crooked that people are constantly worried about violent crime.  I don’t have time and space to expand upon that here and now, but Luther does talk about that as well in this context.  You’ll have to find it on your own or perhaps I’ll come back to the topic later.]

The above quote is found in volume 40 of Luther’s Works, page 281-284.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Choice, Truth, Authority (Guinness)

Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization by [Guinness, Os] In his 2016 publication Impossible People, Os Guinness shares some very helpful insight on our cultural situation as it relates to the historic Christian faith.  This is a very good book; I’m sure I’ll mention it here again.  Right now I want to note the section where Guinness gives three examples of the damage modernity has inflicted on the Christian faith and the church.  The first is modernity’s emphasis on choice and preference – an emphasis which “tends to undermine all forms of authority other than its own and replaces them with the sense that all responses are merely a matter of preference.”

“…From breakfast cereals to restaurants to cuisines to sexual identities and temptations to possible sexual arrangements, we are offered an infinite array of choices, and the focus is always on choosing rather than choice as the content of what is chosen.  Just choose.  Simply choose. Experiment.  Try it out for yourself.  How else will you know unless you have tried it?  After all, there are always others, there is always someone or something more, so unless you try them how are you to know whether you have missed the possible holiday, relationship, or philosophy that might really hit the jackpot.”

“…Even God is reduced to consumer choice, and when truth is taken out of the equation, sticking to one choice is no longer a matter of intellectual conviction but a sign of timidity as well as folly.  Surely, the unspoken adpseak tells us, you should always be open-minded, for the genuine freethinker will always wish to choose and keep choosing, to experiment and keep on experimenting.  Our freedom is the freedom to choose, regardless of whether our choice is right or wrong, wise or stupid.  So long as we can choose, we are free.  Choosing is all that matters.  Truth, goodness, and authority are irrelevant to the central act and main event: you are the sovereign chooser, and you are free to exercise your sovereign right to choose and choose and choose again in whatever way you like – untill all choices seem the same and each one shrivels into insignificance.”

Guinness does explain this in more detail, which is for sure worth reading, but it’s too long to quote here.  Here’s part of his critique of the “sovereign chooser”:

“When such autonomous, free-choice consumerism washes over society from the shopping mall to the bedroom, the office and the ballot box, the result is predictable.  What will be the price of obedience to authority, and what will be the respect according to principled dissent?  Choice – unbounded autonomous, subjective sovereign individual choice – is the playboy king of consumerland, and with comfort and convenience as his closet courtiers and cronies, he now rules much of life.  Authority and obedience are therefore banished together.  They are the unwelcome spoilsports whose entry might ruin the fantasy game of infinite choices.  The result is no surprise – a grave crisis of authority within the church, and a rash of positions and interpretations that in any clearer thinking generation would be frankly seen as the rejection of the authority of Jesus and the Scriptures that they are.”

Read that last sentence over again.  I think Guinness is exactly right.  Stay tuned for more on this book later….

Os Guinness, Impossible People, p. 69-70.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Authority of the Church: What Kind?

The Reformed Faith: Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith I appreciate Robert Shaw’s explanation of Westminster Confession of Faith 1.10, which talks about the authority of Scripture and the authority of the church.

“’That Supreme Judge, by which all controversies in religion are to be determined, is no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture,’ is asserted in opposition to the Papists, who maintain that the Church is an infallible judge in religious controversies; though they do not agree among themselves whether this infallible authority resides in the Pope, or in a council, or in both together.”

“Now, the Scripture never mentions such an infallible judge on earth.  Neither Pope, nor councils, possess the properties requisite to constitute a supreme judge in controversies of religion; for they are fallible, and have often erred, and contradicted one another.  Although the Church or her ministers are the official guardians of the Scriptures, and although it belongs to them to explain and enforce the doctrines and laws contained in the Word of God, yet their authority is only ministerial, and their interpretations and decisions are binding on the conscience only in so far as they accord with the mind of the Spirit in the Scriptures.”

“By this test, the decisions of councils, the opinions of ancient writers, and the doctrines of men at the present time, are to be tried, and by this rule all controversies in religion must be determined (Is. 8:20; Matt. 22:29).

Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, 58.

rev shane lems

sunnyside wa

Church Authority Scripture

 I appreciate how William Perkins (d. 1602) discussed church, Scripture, and authority in his book on preaching, The Art of ProphesyingHere are a few different but related quotes.

“The church can bear witness to the canon of Scripture, but it cannot inwardly persuade us of its authority.  If that were so the voice of the church would have greater force than the voice of God, and the whole state of man’s salvation would be dependent on men.  What could be more miserable than that?”

We do not believe something because the church says it is to be believed; rather, we believe it because what the church says has first of all been said by Scripture.”

“The person who doubts the Scriptures will also doubt the testimony of the church.”

This is a great Reformation way of thinking – we have a very high view of the church, and an even higher view of Scripture.

The above quotes can be found in William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 18-19.

shane lems

Scripture and Tradition

 I was talking to a friend of mine who has some roots in and appreciation for the Anglican church.  We got to talking about the role of tradition in the Christian life, and both of us agreed that tradition rightly understood is a strength of historic Christian churches (i.e. ordered liturgy, prayers, creeds, calendars, etc.).  This, of course, has to do with sola Scriptura.  The question is, does tradition fit in with the Reformation slogan ‘Scripture Alone?’  Richard Muller explains that it does.  I appreciate how he states this.

“The strongly worded arguments of Protestant theologians of both the Reformation and orthodox eras against the idea of a coequal authority of Scripture, tradition, and church, typically summarized by the phrase sola Scriptura, must never be taken as a condemnation of tradition or a denigration of the authority of the church as a confessing community of believers.  The Reformation took as its point of departure the late medieval debate over the relation of Scripture to tradition and assumed that tradition stood as a subordinate norm under the authority of Scripture and deriving its authority from Scripture.  This assumption of the fundamental value and rectitude of the church’s faith insofar as it was genuinely grounded on the biblical Word allowed place in the Protestant mind both for a use of tradition and for a churchly use of confessions and catechisms as standards of belief.”

This is a great balance for which to strive.  We should neither avoid tradition nor revere it, but instead appreciate it, utilize it, and remember that the Word stands authoritatively over tradition – as it stands over the church herself, of course.

The above quote can be found on page 345 of Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. II.

shane lems

sunnyside wa