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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The Gracious, Sovereign, Effectual Call (Murray)

 John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied is an outstanding resource that gives a clear and concise summary of what the Bible teaches about Christ’s saving work (redemption accomplished) and how the sinner benefits from it (redemption applied).  If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend doing so sooner than later!  You’ll come away with a greater appreciation of Christ and what he did (and does) for you!  Here’s one section where Murray highlights God’s gracious, sovereign, effectual call:

1. God is the author. “God is faithful, by whom ye were called into the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9). “Be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling” (2 Tim. 1:8, 9). In this respect calling is an act of God’s grace and power just as regeneration, justification, and adoption are. We do not call ourselves, we do not set ourselves apart by sovereign volition any more than we regenerate, justify, or adopt ourselves. Calling is an act of God and of God alone. This fact should make us keenly aware how dependent we are upon the sovereign grace of God in the application of redemption. If calling is the initial step in our becoming actual partakers of salvation, the fact that God is its author forcefully reminds us that the pure sovereignty of God’s work of salvation is not suspended at the point of application any more than at the point of design and objective accomplishment. We may not like this doctrine. But, if so, it is because we are averse to the grace of God and wish to arrogate to ourselves the prerogative that belongs to God. And we know where that disposition had its origin (p. 89).

Here’s a link to the paperback on Amazon and Logos also has it digitally for $9.99.

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

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

Perfectionism, Pride, and Grace (Winter)

 This is one of those books I keep coming back to even though I read it quite a few years ago: Perfecting Ourselves to Death by Richard Winter.  It really is worth the read if you need a resource on the topic of trying to be perfect (having the perfect job, the perfect kitchen, perfect kids, a perfect body, perfect grades, etc.).  Here’s one section near the end of the book where Winter talks about perfectionism, pride, and grace:

You may be wondering why my focus is on Christianity alone. All the great religions of the world, except one, have developed rituals and duties that are designed to make us feel more secure in an uncertain, lonely and threatening world.  But, whether it is Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism or Confucianism (and even in some versions of Christianity), believers can never be sure that they have done enough to make themselves acceptable to “God.”

… This is why Christianity has such a profound answer to some of the issues at the heart of perfectionism. The philosopher and theologian Francis Schaeffer never tired of saying that Christianity is both the easiest and hardest religion. His reasoning was that it is the easiest because we do not have to do anything to contribute to our salvation; we need only come with empty hands and a repentant heart to receive the free gift of God’s forgiveness and love. it is the hardest because we are proud, and we do not want to be indebted to anyone, not even God. We want to do something to ensure our own salvation. But the core of Christianity is about receiving God’s free gift of grace.

Richard Winter, Perfecting Ourselves to Death, p. 130-131.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

Predestination: The Axe that Cuts Down Pride (Toplady)

The Works of Augustus M. Toplady, vol. 5 As a follower of Jesus, I am very much aware than any truly good deed that I do is a result of God’s grace and the Holy Spirit at work in me.  I can’t take credit for any good thing I’ve done; the credit goes to God.  Here’s a great commentary by Augustus Toplady on predestination and how it glorifies God and humbles man:

When God does, by the omnipotent exertion of his Spirit, effectually call any of mankind in time, to the actual knowledge of himself in Christ; when he likewise goes on to sanctify the sinners he has called, making them to excel in all good works, and to persevere, in the love and resemblance of God, to their lives end; the observing part of the unawakened world may be apt to conclude, that these converted persons might receive such measure of grace from God, because of some previous qualifications, good dispositions, or pious desires, and internal preparations, discovered in them by the all-seeing eye: which, if true, would indeed transfer the praise from the Creator, and consign it to the creature.

In other words, when God sovereignly calls and regenerates sinners and begins to sanctify them, some unbelievers might think that God was kind to them because they did something to deserve it.  However, Toplady argues, that would mean the creature gets the glory instead of the Creator.  He continues:

But the doctrine of predestination, absolute, free, unconditional predestination, here steps in, and gives God his own [glory]. It lays the axe to the root of human boasting, and cuts down (for which reason, the natural man hates it) every legal, every independent, every self-righteous imagination, that would exalt itself against the grace of God and the glory of Christ. It tells us that God hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in his Son; according as he hath chosen us in him, before the foundation of the world, in order to our being afterwards made holy and blameless before him in love (Eph. 1). Of course, whatever truly and spiritually good thing is found in any person, it is the special gift and work of God: given and wrought, in consequence of eternal, unmerited election to grace and glory.

I agree; not only does the biblical doctrine of predestination humble man, it also leads us to give God all the glory!

 Augustus M. Toplady, The Works of Augustus M. Toplady, vol. 5 (London: Richard Baynes, 1825), 289–290.

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

He Inclines Their Wills (Augustine)

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1.5: Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings In 1 Kings 12 Solomon’s son Rehoboam had just become Israel’s new king.  Israel begged him to lighten the yoke of hard service.  To make a longer story short, Rehoboam flatly refused and told them that he’d instead add to the hard service (1 Ki 12:11, 14).  Scripture gives us this insight in the middle of the story: So the king did not listen to the people; for it was a turn of events from the Lord, that He might establish His word, which the Lord spoke through Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat. (1 Ki 12:15 NASB).

While reflecting on this passage and others like it, Augustine (d. 430) wrote some helpful comments concerning God’s sovereign will, man’s actions, and divine grace:

Who can help trembling at those judgments of God by which He does in the hearts of even wicked men whatsoever He wills, at the same time rendering to them according to their deeds? Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, rejected the salutary counsel of the old men, not to deal harshly with the people, and preferred listening to the words of the young men of his own age, by returning a rough answer to those to whom he should have spoken gently. Now whence arose such conduct, except from his own will? Upon this, however, the ten tribes of Israel revolted from him, and chose for themselves another king, even Jeroboam, that the will of God in His anger might be accomplished which He had predicted would come to pass. For what says the Scripture? “The king hearkened not unto the people; for the turning was from the Lord, that He might perform His saying, which the Lord spake to Ahijah the Shilonite concerning Jeroboam the son of Nebat.” All this, indeed, was done by the will of man, although the turning was from the Lord.

Read the books of the Chronicles, and you will find the following passage in the second book: “Moreover, the Lord stirred up against Jehoram the spirit of the Philistines, and of the Arabians, that were neighbours to the Ethiopians; and they came up to the land of Judah, and ravaged it, and carried away all the substance which was found in the king’s house.” Here it is shown that God stirs up enemies to devastate the countries which He adjudges deserving of such chastisement. Still, did these Philistines and Arabians invade the land of Judah to waste it with no will of their own? Or were their movements so directed by their own will that the Scripture lies which tells us that “the Lord stirred up their spirit” to do all this? Both statements to be sure are true, because they both came by their own will, and yet the Lord stirred up their spirit; and this may also with equal truth be stated the other way: The Lord both stirred up their spirit, and yet they came of their own will. For the Almighty sets in motion even in the innermost hearts of men the movement of their will, so that He does through their agency whatsoever He wishes to perform through them, even He who knows not how to will anything in unrighteousness. 

After listing other similar passages in Scripture, Augustine comments again:

From these statements of the inspired word, and from similar passages which it would take too long to quote in full, it is, I think, sufficiently clear that God works in the hearts of men to incline their wills whithersoever He wills, whether to good deeds according to His mercy, or to evil after their own deserts; His own judgment being sometimes manifest, sometimes secret, but always righteous. This ought to be the fixed and immoveable conviction of your heart, that there is no unrighteousness with God. Therefore, whenever you read in the Scriptures of Truth, that men are led aside, or that their hearts are blunted and hardened by God, never doubt that some ill deserts of their own have first occurred, so that they justly suffer these things. Thus you will not run counter to that proverb of Solomon: “The foolishness of a man perverteth his ways, yet he blameth God in his heart.” Grace, however, is not bestowed according to men’s deserts; otherwise grace would be no longer grace.9 For grace is so designated because it is given gratuitously.

 Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on Grace and Free Will,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 462-3.

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

The Faltering Christian Making it Home (Goodwin)

The Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 5 God’s promise to perfect his children even extends to Christians who are backsliding or languishing in the faith.  Even in them God will restore and revive the principles of spiritual life.  This is proved by comparing Hebrews 13:20-21 with 1 Peter 5:10.  Thomas Goodwin (d. 1680) argued this truth of perseverance/preservation well in chapter 13 of his book called A Discourse of Election.  Here’s part of it that I found especially comforting:

And as for my text (Heb. 13:20-21), if you observe the ground of the promise of preservation there, it is not founded upon men’s having continued in an exact walking, in every good work all along from their calling, without any falterings or interruption…to be sure there is no mention of that, but it is founded upon this, that the God of all grace having effectually called them, he will see to it to perfect that work in them in the end, and to the end, and so to bring them back from their wanderings, and strayings aside if they fall out, and to take care not to allow them so far to stray as not to be rescued.

Goodwin was of course talking about the perseverance of the saints here.  He then gave the illustration of a sailor making his final destination even though he had been blown off course from time to time:

So as prove the case, what it may fall out to be in some of these called — and there is not a greater variation and deviation from the north point in the compass, in the several latitudes those that sail run through, than there falls out in variety of cases to these, that yet are a-carrying on to heaven, and will certainly be brought thither — over and besides their driving up and down through several winds of temptations, that like gusts come upon them; whilst vet, take the general steerage of their course, and it is to their desired haven.

Next Goodwin mentioned how the sovereign grace of God is behind the perseverance of the saints:

And the ground of that foundation (perseverance/preservation), namely, that they have been called, lies yet deeper, even in the heart of God that calleth (as Rom. 9, the apostle states it), even in this, ‘The God of all grace, who hath called;’ and the strength of it lies in this: that the same grace that God put forth in calling them – when they were utterly void of all good works at first, and destitute of the principles thereof, ‘dead in sins and trespasses,’ – hath engaged itself to perfect it (and will do it, as the promise is, 1 Thes. 5:24, ‘Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it’) he retaining the same grace in his heart towards them….

Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 9 (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1864), 389–390.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015