Works, Idolatry, Uncertainty, and Luther’s Monastic Life

The Martin Luther Collection (42 vols.)Many of our readers know about Luther’s spiritual journey out of the darkness of Rome into the light of the gospel.  In one of his sermons given on the tenth Sunday after Trinity, Luther was preaching on 1 Cor. 12:1-11.  In verse 2 of 1 Cor. 12 Paul reminds the Corinthians how, before coming to Christ, they were led astray by idols.  Luther understood Paul’s point by his own experience, which he mentioned in the sermon.  I’ve emphasized a sentence below that stands out to me – one that shows the futility of trying to earn God’s favor by works.  After pointing out the futility of salvation, Luther points to hope and comfort in Christ:

And what did we under the papacy but walk blindly? We suffered ourselves to be led just as we were directed by the names of God and the saints. I was myself a pious monk and priest, holding mass daily, wherein I worshiped St. Barbara, St. Anna, St. Christopher and others—more saints than the calendar mentions, some of whom no one knew anything about. I had no knowledge of Christ, I knew not why I should find comfort in him nor what I should expect of him. I was as much afraid of him as of the devil himself, regarding him more a stern Judge than a Saviour. How many shameful pilgrimages were made to dead idols of wood and stone, images of Mary and of the saints! How many were the pilgrimages to the graves of the dead, and to bones called “holy relics”! These relics were mere open deception, devised by shameless impostors; yet such worship was established by popes and bishops, and indulgences granted therefore.

How many new saints, new brotherhoods, new psalms to Mary, and new rosaries and crowns did the monks daily invent! In fact, everything each individual monk might dream of had to be a special form of worship, and no one inquired whether or not it was at all authorized by God’s Word. When we had done all, we were uncertain that we had pleased God. What was this sort of worship but a worship of dumb idols in the place of the living God—idols which could not talk with us and could not give any definite information or comfort, but left the people fettered and ruined with eternal doubts?

But Christians, as Paul says, have not a dead and dumb god, for which the Lord be praised! Nor will we countenance such idols. We have a living, speaking God, who gives us his infallible Word. We know how he is disposed toward us and what we may expect from him; namely: through faith in Christ we have forgiveness of sins and are his beloved children; and as evidence of acceptance with God, we have baptism and the Holy Supper, the office and gifts of the Holy Spirit, by which he works in our hearts. We know that in the faith of Christ our works and lives are pleasing to God, and that he will hear and help when in our distress and weakness we cry unto him.

 Martin Luther, “Tenth Sunday after Trinity (First Corinthians 12:1–11),” in Luther’s Epistle Sermons: Trinity Sunday to Advent, trans. John Nicholas Lenker, vol. III, The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther (Minneapolis, MN: The Luther Press, 1909), 202–203.

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

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Diehard Sins: A Brief Review

Diehard Sins: How to Fight Wisely against Destructive Daily Habits by [Witt, Rush] Here’s a newer and very good resource on fighting sin and growing in grace: Diehard Sins by Rush Witt.  I have to admit when I first got this book I wasn’t sure what to expect since I’ve read similar books on the topic – some good, some not so good.  This is one of the good ones!

There are three main parts: 1) Enter with Joy into Your Struggle against Daily Sin, 2) Understand the True Needs of Your Heart, and 3) Bring Christ and his Provisions to Your Fight.  The topics covered include a discussion of the nature of sin, what it means to struggle with sin, how to detect sin in your own life, and applying the gospel to the struggle with sin (among others).

I appreciate the book first because it is rooted in Scripture and very much grounded in the gospel.  Witt strikes a nice balance between resting in Christ and actively putting sin to death – you can only do the latter by doing the former.  A big picture summary of the book would probably be like this: How to fight sin by depending on Christ.  Since there is a proper law/gospel distinction, the book gives some helpful biblical lessons in fighting sin.

Another strength of the book is that Witt approaches the topic from a counseling perspective.  It’s not a counseling book specifically, but there are some counseling themes and, in my opinion, helpful wisdom on practical ways to put sin to death.  For example, one appendix is a brief outline to resisting temptation: Refuse, Replace, Pray, and Praise.

Finally, I appreciate how the author mentions that we fight sin best in the context of the body of Christ and the means of grace: the last chapter is called “Fighting Sin in the Community of Faith.”  This book isn’t a call to fight sin on our own, but to do it depending on grace while walking beside and with other believers.

If you want a good resource on fighting sin, I very much recommend this one: Diehard Sins.  There are a few reflection questions after each chapter, so it would make a good group study or book club resource.  I’m glad I own this book, and I’ve already used it in my own ministry!

Rush Witt, Diehard Sins, (P&R Publishing, 2018).

(Note: The author kindly sent me a copy to review, although I was not compelled in any way to write a positive review.  If I didn’t like the book, I would’ve said so!)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Quarterly (!?!?) Celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Calvin)

The Letters of John Calvin (4 vols.) I’m one of those Presbyterian pastors who believes that celebration of the Lord’s Supper should be done frequently.  In the church I served before, we celebrated Holy Communion once per month.  In the church I serve now, we celebrate it weekly.  To be honest, I’ve never heard anyone who is accustomed to celebrating the Lord’s Supper frequently say, “We should celebrate it less frequently; it’s becoming too ordinary.”  In fact, the opposite is true.  I have heard someone who was ill for around a month say when he made it back to church that he really missed taking the Lord’s Supper!

Each Lord’s Day here we hear a brief explanation of the Lord’s Supper from a different angle.  One Sunday we’ll hear about how Christ was our substitute as he died on the cross for us.  Another Sunday we’ll focus on how his blood cleanses us from all sin.  The next we’ll hear that although Christ is in heaven, we feed on him by the power of the Holy Spirit through the faith he’s given to us.  At a different time we’ll hear the fact that God loves us so much that he gave his only Son to die and save us.  And so on.  It’s a gospel celebration each Lord’s Day; the sacrament echoes the preaching of the Word!

I recently ran across a paragraph of Calvin’s where he talked about this very subject (I mentioned this letter yesterday).  The authorities made the decision to celebrate the Supper quarterly (four times per year).  Calvin, since he was no maverick, submitted to the authority even though he was much more in favor of  frequent use of the Lord’s Supper.  Don’t miss the last sentence of the quote!

In one thing we differ, but the difference is not an innovation. We celebrate the Lord’s supper four times a year, and you thrice. Now would to God, messeigneurs [lords], that both you and we had a more frequent use of it. For we see in the Acts of the Apostles by Saint Luke that in the primitive church they communicated much oftener. And that custom continued in the ancient church during a long space of time, till the abomination of the mass was devised by Satan, and was the cause why people communicated but once or twice a year. Wherefore we must confess that it is a defect in us not to follow the example of the Apostles. 

Jules Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 162–163.

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

The Sum and Substance of the Gospel (Bavinck)

 One reason I always enjoy reading Herman Bavinck is because his discussions are so clearly based on Scripture.  I especially like those parts where he explains a doctrine by using his own sort of paraphrase of verses along with the Scripture references.  For example, this week I’m studying Christ’s ascension in sermon preparation.  So I turned to volume 3 of Bavinck’s Dogmatics where there is a good section summarizing the biblical and theological aspects of Christ’s resurrection and ascension; I’ve put it below.  I like it for further study but also because it’s quite devotional and edifying to read!

Bavinck wrote that the sum and substance of the Gospel isall about the Messiah, the Christ…

…who died and rose again. The cross was an immense offense—also for the disciples (Matt. 26:31). But for them that offense was removed by the resurrection. Then they perceived that Jesus had to die and did die in accordance with the counsel of the Father (Acts 2:23; 3:18; 4:28), and that by his resurrection God had made him a cornerstone (4:11; 1 Peter 2:6), Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36), a Leader and a Savior (5:31), the Lord of all (10:36), the Lord of glory (James 2:1), in order by him to give repentance, forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 10:43; 1 Peter 1:3ff., 21), outside of whom there is no salvation (Acts 4:12).

Now taken up into heaven, he remains there until he comes again for judgment (1:11; 3:21), for he is the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead (10:42; 17:31), and then all things will be restored of which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets of old (3:21).

Similarly Paul teaches that Christ, though he was the Son of God even before his incarnation (Gal. 4:4; Phil. 2:6; Col. 1:15), was designated Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:4). Then he received a spiritual, glorified body (1 Cor. 15:45; Phil. 3:21), became a life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45; 2 Cor. 3:17), the firstborn of the dead (Col. 1:18), who from then on lives to God forever (Rom. 6:10). Precisely because of his deep humiliation, God highly exalted him, giving him the name that is above every other name, that is, the name “Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:11), granting him dominion over the living and the dead (Rom. 14:9), and subjecting all things under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25, 27). As such he is the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8), seated at God’s right hand (Rom. 8:34; 1 Cor. 2:8), in whom the fullness of the deity dwells bodily (Col. 1:19; 2:9), who is the head of the church, prays for it, and fills it with all the fullness of God (Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:23; 3:19; 4:16).

The Letter to the Hebrews further adds to this profile the unique idea that Christ, the Son, who with the Father was the Creator of all things, was also appointed “the heir of all things” (Heb. 1:2; 2:8) by the Father and designated eternal high priest (5:6; 7:17). But for a short time, in order to attain this destiny, he had to become lower than the angels (2:7, 9), assume our flesh and blood (2:14), become like us in all respects except sin (2:17; 4:15), and learn obedience from the things he suffered (5:8). But thereby he also sanctified, that is, perfected himself (2:10; 5:9; 7:28), and was designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek (5:10). This, accordingly, is the sum of the things of which the Letter to the Hebrews says that we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven (1:13; 8:1; 10:12). He who is the liturgist of the heavenly sanctuary (8:2), a high priest, therefore, who is at the same time the king whose throne is established forever (1:8), who is crowned with honor and glory (2:9), subjects all things under him (2:8), and is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him since he always lives to make intercession for them (5:9; 7:25; 10:14).

The Apocalypse, finally, loves to picture Christ as the Lamb who purchased us and washed us by his blood (5:9; 7:14) but also as the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth (1:5), the King of kings and the Lord of lords, who with the Father sits on the throne, has power and honor and glory, even the keys of Hades and death (1:18; 3:21; 5:12–13; 19:16). Clothed with such power, he rules and protects his church (2:1, 18; etc.) and will one day triumph over all his enemies (19:12f.).

 Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 423–424.

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

The Power of the Gospel (Hodge)

Select Sermons of Charles Hodge On November 20, 1842 Charles Hodge gave a chapel message to the students at Princeton Seminary.  It was on Romans 1:15, where Paul says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes… (NASB).  In this chapel message Hodge did an excellent job highlighting the power of the gospel.  Here’s one excerpt worth reading:

…the Gospel is adapted to secure the salvation of men because it, in the first place, reveals a righteousness suited to their necessities. This is the reason which the apostle himself assigns. The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation because therein is revealed the righteousness of God. It is plain from other passages in his epistles that by “righteousness of God,” he means a righteousness which is from God, which he gives, and which is available at his tribunal. It is opposed to our own righteousness and declared to be his gift. The Gospel therefore is effectual to salvation because it makes known, offers, and confers a righteousness which secures our justification and reconciliation with God. This is the grand source of its power without which all their excellencies would be of no avail.

If it left us still under the curse of the law, if it disclosed no method by which we can obtain the forgiveness of sins, it could not be effectual to the salvation of sinners. Its disclosures of the infinite holiness and justice of God; of the spirituality and extent of his law; of the necessity of perfect obedience in order to justify the nation, would but drive us to despair. But revealing as it does a method by which God can be just and yet justify the ungodly, it is exactly suited to our necessities. The righteousness which it presents is absolutely perfect, it meets and answers all the demands of the law; it, fully satisfies the justice of God; it satisfies the demands of conscience, it satisfies all the interests of the moral government of God. And instead of endangering the welfare of holy beings, it in the highest degree exalts their blessedness by its display of the manifold grace and wisdom of God.

It is with unspeakable delight that the sinner sensible of his guilt acquiesces in a plan of salvation which thus honours God; which thus sustains the divine law, and which, while it humbles and saves himself, ministers to the blessedness of all holy beings. He sees that there is now no reason why the believing sinner should be punished. All the ends of punishment are answered far more effectually by the atoning righteousness of Christ than they could ever have been by his own perdition. Being justified by faith he has peace with God, through the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifies, who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather that has risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.’ ‘There is no condemnation to him that is in Christ Jesus.’ To such a man they [the ends of punishment] can be a rational source of disquiet. [But] God has forgiven him, his Saviour ever lives to intercede for him, and by that intercession to secure him from all fatal evil and the enjoyment of all necessary good.

Charles Hodge, “Not Ashamed,” in Select Sermons of Charles Hodge (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Death of Christ for Us (Turretin)

 Francis Turretin (d. 1687) did a very good job of summarizing Scripture’s account of Christ’s atonement as satisfying the justice of God.  In his section called “The Necessity of the Satisfaction,” he wrote the following (I’ve edited it slightly):

Sin, which renders us guilty, binds us over to punishment as hated of God. It [sin] may be viewed 1) as a debt which we are bound to pay to divine justice, in which sense the law is called “a hand-writing,” (Col 2:14) 2) as a principle of enmity, whereby we hate God and he becomes our enemy: 3) as a crime against the government of the universe by which, before God, the supreme governor and judge, we become deserving of everlasting death and malediction.

Whence, sinners are expressly called 1) “debtors,” (Matt. 6:12); 2) “enemies to God,” both actively and passively, (Col. 1:21); 3) “and guilty before God,” (Rom. 3:19.) We, therefore, infer that three things were necessary in order to our redemption; the payment of the debt contracted by sin, the appeasing of the divine wrath, and the expiation of guilt.

[Therefore] the nature of the satisfaction to be made may be easily perceived: the payment of the debt, the appeasing of the divine wrath (by reconciling us with him) and the expiation of guilt (by the endurance of punishment).

Francis Turretin, Institutes, II, pages 418-419.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Gospel and Daily Humility (Bridges)

 I enjoyed Jerry Bridges’ book, The Blessing of Humility.  It’s a readable discussion of humility based on the Beatitudes.  Chapter ten of this book is called, “The Humility and the Gospel.”  Below are four main points Bridges makes in this chapter.  I’ve summarized them for the sake of space.  The question is this: How does the good news of the gospel help keep us humble every day?

  1. For one thing, it frees us up to be honest with ourselves about our sin.  We can face our sin squarely when we know that it is forgiven.  Even when a particular sin is vile in our eyes – not to mention God’s eyes – we can call it what it is, and thank God for his forgiveness.

  2. The second way the gospel helps us live a life of humility is to show us another person’s sin in light of our own.  To paraphrase and even enlarge on the words of one of the Puritans, the proud person is so busy judging the sins of other people that he or she has no time to see the sins of his or her own heart.  Meanwhile, the humble person is so busy dealing with his or her own sins that he or she has no time to judge the sins  of others.

  3. A third way the gospel helps us walk in humility is that it helps us practice meekness and mercy.  We can only truly appreciate the gospel when we see it through the lens of our sin.  And as we do that, we can forgive the sins of others because we have been forgiven so much.

  4. Fourth, the gospel motivates us to want to live in purity of heart – that is, to have as our supreme goal in life to live no longer for ourselves but Him who redeemed us to be a people for his own possession. …I find myself often praying over a few phrases from the old hymn “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.” ‘Take all my guilt away / O let me from this day / Be wholly Thine!’

In summary, I would say that it is impossible to truly walk in humility without to some degree appropriating the truth of the gospel every day.

Jerry Bridges, The Blessing of Humility, p. 86-88.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015