Pray Hard, For You Are Quite A Sinner (Luther)

The following paragraph is from a famous letter of Martin Luther to Phillip Melanchthon.  I’ve posted it on this blog before, but it’s worth doing again.  This letter shows two things: 1) Luther well understood Rome’s unbiblical doctrines [note the “imaginary” language below] and 2) he understood the gospel clearly.

If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but
the true mercy.  If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the
true, not an imaginary sin.  God does not save those who are only
imaginary sinners.  Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let
your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the
victor over sin, death, and the world.  We will commit sins while we
are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides.  We,
however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new
heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.  It suffices that
through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the
sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to
kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day.  Do you think
such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager
sacrifice for our sins?  Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.”

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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Forgiveness and the Grinding Halt of Vengeance (Volf)

Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace is a very thoughtful and interesting book on identity, reconciliation, oppression, justice, and so forth.  I don’t agree with everything Volf says, but I am enjoying the book.  This morning I ran across his section on forgiveness, which was very helpful.  Here are a few quotes worth noting:

“Instead of wanting to forgive, we instinctively seek revenge.  An evil deed will not be owned for long; it demands instant repayment in kind.  The trouble with revenge, however, is that it enslaves us.”

Volf continues by talking about “the endless turning of the spiral of vengeance.”  That is, vengeance leads to violence, which leads to revenge, which leads to violence, and so forth.  Furthermore, vengeance spirals because we can’t undo what we’ve done.  If a person could undo something, “revenge would not be necessary.  The undoing, if there were a will for it, would suffice.  But our actions are irreversible…and so the urge for vengeance seems irrepressible.”

Volf then explains that forgiveness is the only way out of this spiral of revenge and violence:

“Forgiveness breaks the power of the remembered past and transcends the claims of the affirmed justice and so makes the spiral of vengeance grind to a halt.”

Of course, forgiveness has everything to do with the cross.

“The climate of pervasive oppression in which [Jesus] preached was suffused with the desire for revenge.  The principle, ‘If anyone hits you, hit back!  If anyone takes your coat, burn down his house!’ seemed the only way to survive….  Lamech’s kind of revenge, which returns seventy-seven blows for every one received, seemed, paradoxically, the only way to root out injustice (Gen. 4:23-24).  Turning Lamech’s logic on its head, however, Jesus demanded his followers not simply to forego revenge, but to forgive as many times as Lamech sought to avenge himself (Mt. 18:21).  The injustice of oppression must be fought with the creative ‘injustice’ of forgiveness, not with the aping injustice of revenge.  Hanging on the cross where he was sent by an unjust judge, Jesus became the ultimate example of his own teaching.  He prayed, ‘Father, forgive them…’ (Lk 23:24).

And here’s where it trickles down into our own lives and situations:

“Only those who are forgiven and who are willing to forgive will be capable of relentlessly pursuing justice without falling into the temptation to pervert it into injustice….”

The above section and quotes are found in Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace, pp 119-123.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

 

Our Foundation of Grace (Owen)

In one part of his exposition of Psalm 130, John Owen discussed receiving forgiveness and being assured of it.  One of his “rules” was this: “Mix not foundation and building-work together.”  By this Owen meant that the Christian’s foundation of forgiveness and acceptance with God is not by works, but by grace alone and found in Christ alone.  Here’s what he wrote:

“Our foundation in dealing with God is Christ alone, mere grace and pardon in him.  Our building is by holiness and obedience, as the fruits of that faith by which we have received the atonement.

And great mistakes there are in this matter, which bring great entanglements on the souls of men. Some are all their days laying the foundation, and are never able to build upon it any comfort to themselves or usefulness to others; and the reason is, because they are mixing with the foundation stones that are fit only for the building. They will be bringing their obedience, duties, mortification of sin, and the like, to the foundation. These are precious stones to build with, but unmeet to be first laid, to bear upon them the whole weight of the building.

The foundation is to be laid, as was said, in mere grace, mercy, and pardon in the blood of Christ. This the soul is to accept of and to rest in as mere grace, without the consideration of any thing in itself, but that it is sinful and obnoxious unto ruin. This it finds a difficulty in, and would gladly have something of its own to mix with it. It cannot tell how to fix these foundation-stones without some cement of its own endeavors and duty; and because these things will not mix, they spend a fruitless labor about it all their days.

But if the foundation be of grace, it is not at all of works; for “otherwise grace is no more grace. ” If any thing of our own be mixed with grace in this matter, it utterly destroys the nature of grace; which if it be not alone, it does not exist at all….

This, then, is the soul to do who would come to peace and settlement.  Let it let go of all former endeavors, if it has been engaged unto any of that kind, and let it alone receive, admit of, and adhere to, mere grace, mercy, and pardon, with a full sense that in itself it has nothing for which it should have an interest in them, but that all is of mere grace through Jesus Christ: ‘Other foundation can no man lay.’ Depart not hence until this work be well over. Cease not from an earnest endeavor with your own heart to acquiesce in this righteousness of God, and to bring your souls unto a comfortable persuasion that “God for Christ’s sake hath freely forgiven you all your sins. “

This is a great reminder of that biblical truth that we are justified, forgiven, and accepted by God only through Christ and only because of God’s grace (Rom 3-4, Gal 2-3, Eph 2, etc.).  Our justification, forgiveness, and acceptance are not in any way dependent upon our works, deeds, or merits.  As we begin to grow in understanding of this foundational truth, our assurance also grows and we learn more about what it means to give God all the glory.

The above quote is found in John Owen’s exposition of Psalm 130, chapter 13, rule 7.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Dear Devil, Go Eat the Dung (Luther)

In 1532 Martin Luther preached a sermon at the funeral of Duke John of Saxony.  He preached on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14.  It’s a good sermon in many ways.  One helpful part of this sermon is where Luther explained how Satan, the accuser, uses the law in a crafty way.  He first tells us that we have to be good and keep the law, but then he reminds us that we haven’t kept the law.  “And with that thought he brings one into such anxiety that one is ready to despair.”  Luther continues:

And again when occasionally I have done something good, Satan is nevertheless able to turn it around in such a way that my holiness is reduced to nothingness. Then I make haste to seize hold of the article of the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for my sins [I Cor. 15:31]; and this is precisely what Satan does not want to let into my heart. But what does go into the heart is that I have done this and not done that, that I have given alms, been good, etc., just as I can say of our beloved prince that he had a faithful heart, devoid of malice and envy.

In other words, if Satan can’t get us to despair about our many sins, he tries to get us to be proud of our obedience.  Again, Luther:

But by all means take care not to let anybody persuade you of this on your deathbed; for then the devil is not far away; he can throw in your face a little sin which reduces all such fine virtues to nothing, so that finally you come to such a pass that you say: Devil, rage as much as you please, I do not boast of my good works and virtues before our Lord God at all, nor shall I despair on account of my sins, but I comfort myself with the fact that Jesus Christ died and rose again, as the text here says.

Lo, when I believe this with my whole heart, then I have the greatest treasure, namely, the death of Christ and the power which it has wrought, and I am more concerned with that than with what I have done. Therefore, devil, begone with both my righteousness and my sin. If I have committed some sin, go eat the dung; it’s yours. I’m not worrying about it, for Jesus Christ died. St. Paul bids me comfort myself with this, that I may learn to defend myself from the devil and say: Even though I have sinned, it doesn’t matter; I will not argue with you about what evil or good I have done. There is no time to talk of that now; go away and do it some other time when I have been a bad boy, or go to the impenitent and scare them all you please. But with me, who have already been through the anguish and throes of death, you’ll find no place now. This is not the time for arguing, but for comforting myself with the words that Jesus Christ died and rose for me. Thus I am sure that God will bring me, along with other Christians, with Christ to his right hand and carry me through death and hell.

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 51, p. 241.

Shane Lems

He Will Not Send You To Purgatory (Ryken)

Philip Ryken’s When You Pray is a very helpful resource for studying the Lord’s Prayer and for learning more about prayer and praying.  When I recently studied the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our debts...”), I found the following paragraphs helpful:

“As soon as we start trying to figure out how to pay God what we owe for our sins, we realize how much trouble we are really in.  Obviously, we cannot pay off our debts by ourselves.  How could we ever make up for all the sins we have committed?  Yet this is precisely the error most religions make, including false versions of Christianity.  They all operate on the basis that human beings can do something to make things right with God.  Their reasoning goes something like this: ‘Lord, I know I keep messing up, but I’m trying really, really hard to be good.  In case you haven’t noticed, I have a list here of some of the good things I’ve done – charitable work, and that sort of thing.  Yes, I know my list isn’t as long as it could be, but why don’t we just call it even?’  This kind of approach is based on the principle of works righteousness, the idea that doing good works can make someone good enough for God.”

“The truth is, however, that forgiveness is not something we can work for, it is only something we can ask for.  Even if we worked for all eternity, laboring in the very pit of hell, we could never work off the debt we owe to God.  What could we ever pay to God?  Jesus posed the question this way: ‘What can a man give in exchange for his soul?’ (Mt. 16:26b NIV).  The answer, of course, is nothing.  Our souls are the most valuable thing we have.  When, because of our sin and guilt, we owe God our very souls, there is nothing left for us to pay.”

Later Ryken notes that “we owe God far more than we or anyone else could ever pay.”  So what can we do about our massive debt to God?  The only thing we can do is beg God for forgiveness: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner! (Lk. 18:13).

“This is precisely what we do in the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer.  We ask our Father to forgive us our debts.  With these words we declare our moral bankruptcy, freely admitting that we owe God more than everything we have.  Then we do the only thing we can, which is to ask him to forgive us outright.  Because he is our loving Father, God does what we ask.  ‘He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities… As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him (Ps. 103:10, 13 NIV).  God the Father offers forgiveness as a free gift of his grace.  When you go to him, weighed down with the debt of all your guilt and sin, he will not sit down with you to work out a payment plan.  He will not scheme to charge you more interest.  He will not send you to Purgatory or anywhere else to work off your debts.  On the contrary, God is a loving Father who offers forgiveness full and free.”

Philip Graham Ryken, When You Pray (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2000), p. 125-6.

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

My Evil Thoughts (Newton)

 For me, one difficult part of the Christian life is the troubling sinful thoughts that burden my mind daily.  Sometimes I know why a sinful thought arose in my mind; other times I have no clue why and no idea where a thought came from.  Satan is for sure to blame for at least some of our evil thoughts!  Speaking of horrifying thoughts, wouldn’t it be a terrible nightmare if other people knew all of our sinful thoughts?  If thoughts were crimes, I’d have been tried, found guilty, and executed long ago!

John Newton wrote a letter to a certain Miss W who had talked to him about her anxiety over sinful thoughts.  Newton’s pastoral note is outstanding; this comforted me today.

As to evil thoughts, they as unavoidably arise from an evil nature, as steam from a boiling tea-kettle. Every cause will have its effect, and a sinful nature will have sinful effects. You can no more keep such thoughts out of your mind than you can stop the course of the clouds. But, if the Lord had not taught you, you would not have been sensible of them, nor concerned about them. This is a token for good. By nature your thoughts would have been only evil, and that continually. But you find something within you that makes you dislike these thoughts; makes you ashamed of them, makes you strive and pray against them. These evil thoughts convince you, that, though you do not willfully speak or do evil, yet upon the account of your evil thoughts alone, you are a sinner, and stand in need of such great forgiveness; that if there were not a precious, compassionate, and mighty Savior, you could have no hope.

Now, this something that reveals and resists your evil thoughts—what can it be? It cannot be human nature; for we naturally have vain imaginations. It is the grace of God! The Lord has made you sensible of your disease, that you might love and prize the great Physician. The knowledge of his love shall make you hate these thoughts; and faith in his blood shall deliver you from the guilt of them; yet you will be pestered with them more or less while you live in this world, for sin is wrought into our bodies, and our souls must be freed from our bodies—before we shall be fully freed from the evils under which we mourn!

Later in the letter Newton talked about how Satan temps God’s people.  He then wrote:

Be thankful, my dear, that he treats you as his enemy; for miserable is the state of those to whom he behaves as a friend. And always remember that he is a chained enemy! He may terrify, but he cannot devour those who have fled for refuge to Jesus. And the Lord shall over-rule all for good. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies and tricks of the Devil!” Ephesians 6:10-11.

Sinful thoughts are difficult to deal with; I hate them!  But, as Newton noted from Scripture, there is forgiveness now and in the future there is victory in Christ!

The above quote is found in volume 6 of Newton’s Works (p. 254-5).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Most Powerful Thing We Can Say

Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love “Sin weighs a lot.” So Ed Welch says in chapter four of his helpful book, Side By Side.  He explains that sometimes suffering might feel like our biggest problem, but it’s not.  Sin is.  “Sin is the heaviest of weights; forgiveness is the greatest deliverance.”  It isn’t always easy to own up to our sin – especially those heinous sins hiding privately in the corners of our hearts.  But opening up and confessing our sin to God (and sometimes others) brings blessings.  Though there are more, Welch lists three and explains them.  The first two are (minus his explanation):

  1. Seeing the weight of our sin drives us to Jesus.

  2. Seeing the weight of our sin brings humility.

Blessing #3 is “Seeing the weight of our sin is the beginning of power and confidence.”  Here’s how Welch unpacks the statement:

“…Spiritual power feels like a struggle, or weakness, or neediness, or desperation.  It is simply, ‘I need Jesus,’ which is the most powerful thing we can say.  It means that our confidence is not in ourselves or in either our righteousness before God or our reputation before others.  Our confidence is in Jesus, and that confidence cannot be shaken.”

“Just imagine: no more hiding from God, no more defensiveness in our relationships.  When we have wronged others, we simply ask their forgiveness.  Our security in Jesus gives us the opportunity to think less often about what others think of us.  It gives us freedom to make mistakes and even fail.  No longer do we have to build and protect our own freedom.”

“Sin weighs a lot, but those who can see their sins see something good.  When we confess these sins, knowing that they are forgiven, we see something better – Jesus himself.”

Ed Welch, Side By Side, p. 45.

Shane Lems