Entrusting Our Cares to Mary!?

Many of us have heard or even used the phrase “hail Mary.” It often refers to a long and risky throw in football, when the quarterback unleashes a monster toss hoping the receiver will catch it. This term, “hail Mary,” is how the “Ave Maria” prayer in the Roman Catholic traiditon starts: “Hail, Mary, full of grace…” In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has a short commentary on the Ave Maria. Here are some parts of that commentary:

Full of grace, the Lord is with thee. …Mary, in whom the Lord himself has just made his dwelling, is the daughter of Zion in person, the ark of the covenant, the place where the glory of the Lord dwells. She is “the dwelling of God … with men.” Full of grace, Mary is wholly given over to him who has come to dwell in her and whom she is about to give to the world.

Holy Mary, Mother of God. …Because she gives us Jesus, her son, Mary is Mother of God and our mother; we can entrust all our cares and petitions to her: she prays for us as she prayed for herself: “Let it be to me according to your word.” By entrusting ourselves to her prayer, we abandon ourselves to the will of God together with her: “Thy will be done.”

Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death: By asking Mary to pray for us, we acknowledge ourselves to be poor sinners and we address ourselves to the “Mother of Mercy,” the All-Holy One. We give ourselves over to her now, in the Today of our lives. And our trust broadens further, already at the present moment, to surrender “the hour of our death” wholly to her care. May she be there as she was at her son’s death on the cross. May she welcome us as our mother at the hour of our passing to lead us to her son, Jesus, in paradise.

 Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 644.

To Protestant and and Reformed Christians today, this sounds terribly unbiblical (to put it mildly!). This view of Mary is not only unbiblical, it also detracts from the person and work of Christ, our one and only mediator and Savior. This is why we Reformed Christians say, confess, and believe the truth of the phrase “Solus Christus!” Here’s how Martin Luther responded to such Roman Catholic teaching mentioned above:

They [the Pope and his teachers] declared also to the people, in their sermons, that the only Mediator between God and man, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, was a severe and an angry Judge; that he neither could nor would be reconciled with us, except we had other advocates and intercessors besides him.

By this doctrine people were seduced, and carried away to Heathenish idolatry; and they took their refuge in dead Saints that should help and deliver them, and made them to be their gods: in whom they put more trust and confidence than in our blessed Saviour Christ Jesus; and especially, they placed the Virgin Mary (instead of her son Christ) for a Mediatrix on the throne of grace.

 Martin Luther and Antonius Lauterbach, The Familiar Discourses of Dr. Martin Luther, ed. Joseph Kerby, trans. Henry Bell, New Edition. (Lewes; London: Sussex Press; John Baxter; Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy; H. Mozley, 1818), 462.

Similarly, the Westminster Confession of Faith echoes the biblical teaching that we have only one mediator, Jesus Christ:

Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and to Him alone; (Matt. 4:10, John 5:23, 2 Cor. 13:14) not to angels, saints, or any other creature: (Col. 2:18, Rev. 19:10, Rom. 1:25) and, since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone. (WCF XXI.2)

Yes, the Reformation still matters! We can be thankful that the reformers had the courage and conviction to stick with and teach the truths of Scripture. This glorifies our one and only Savior, Jesus Christ, who ever lives to make intercession for us as our one and only mediator.

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

All Other Ground is Sinking Sand (Luther/Bernard)

Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount Martin Luther, in his Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, noted how some people build their house upon the sand by resting on their own works or merits for acceptance with God.  Luther then gave a helpful insight from the life and faith of Bernard of Clairvaux:

St. Bernard himself had also to feel and acknowledge this, who had nevertheless led a very strict life, with praying, fasting, bodily mortification, etc., so that he was deficient in no respect, and served as an example for all others, so that I know of no one among the monks who wrote or lived better than he. Yet, when he came to die, he had himself to pronounce this judgment upon his entire holy life: ‘O, I lived a damnable life, and spent my life shamefully!’ Ah, how so, dear St. Bernard? You were surely a pious monk all your life. Is then chastity, obedience, your preaching, fasting, praying, not an admirable thing? No (says he,) it is all lost and belongs to the devil. There comes the wind and rain, and throws foundation, basis and building all into a heap, so that he would have had to be eternally damned, by his own judgment, if he had not turned about, and, made wiser by his loss, deserted monkery, seized upon another foundation and clung to Christ, and been kept in the faith that the children use in their prayers, when he said: “Although I am not worthy of eternal life, nor can attain it by my own merit, yet my Lord Christ has a double right to it, once as Lord and heir to it, inherited from eternity; secondly, attained through his suffering and death. The first he retains for himself; the other he bestows upon me,” etc.

 Martin Luther, Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, trans. Charles A. Hay (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1892), 487–488.

Shane Lems

The Lutheran Confessions: Concordia

  (This is a re-blog from November 2009)

Concordia is an outstanding Reformation resource.  It is handsome, sturdy, well-formatted, and easy to use.  The subtitle is correct: it is A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord.  Editorial props go to Paul McCain, Edward Englebrecht, Robert Baker, and Gene Veith as well as Concordia Publishing House for a job well done.

Now, I’m not a Lutheran, but this book “almost maketh me” one!  Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto is right: the book is “a wonderful guide out of the spiritual labyrinth created by liberal fudge on the one hand and simplistic self-righteousness on the other” (ix).

Why the title, Concordia?  It means with and heart in Latin.  “It describes a commitment to the truth so strong and so deep, it is as if those who share it have a single heartbeat” (xiii).

What is genuine, historic Lutheranism?

“To embrace the freedom of truth means rejecting the slavery of error.  That is why this book uses two phrases to capture the essence of biblical confession: ‘we believe, teach, and confess’ and ‘we reject and condemn.’  One cannot believe, teach and confess the truth without also rejecting and condemning everything that endangers or contradicts the truth” (xiv).

What is in this 700+ page book?  A helpful introduction to confessional Lutheranism, how to use the book, overviews, a Reformation timeline, and what it means to subscribe to Lutheran confessions.  The confessions are: The three Creeds (Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian), The Augsburg Confession (1530), the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531), The Smalcald Articles (1537), The Power and Primacy of the Pope (1537; the title is a tad misleading – this treatise discusses authority in the church from a Lutheran perspective), The Small and Large Catechism (1529), The Formula of Concord, Epitome (1577) and The Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration (1577).  There are also great historical introductions to those confessions, as well as a glossary, topical, and Scripture index.

You can get Concordia shipped to your door for under $30 if you shop around.  I’ll post on it from time to time, to be sure, but suffice it to say that this is a mini “Lutheran Library” in one book.  All students of theology and church history should have one of these so you can learn from confessional Lutherans what they teach and confess.  Though I have the usual Reformed qualms with certain aspects of Lutheran theology, I respect their emphasis on the gospel and their confessional stance in a day and age of confessional drifting.

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

Letting The Law In The Back Door of Justification

Gospel Mystery of Sanctification When it comes to religion, humans are wired with law.  Since Adam broke the covenant of works in the garden, people have always attempted to please God (or god/gods) by doing something for him.  The law that says ‘do this and live’ is part of human DNA.  This is why it is so hard for some people to believe a law-free gospel – good news that you don’t have to do a single thing for God to be accepted by him.  In fact, you have to stop doing things and receive a gift instead: the Messiah Jesus, who lived, died, and rose again to save sinners.

That humans are law-wired is also a reason why people sometimes sneak the law in the back door of the doctrine of justification.  As I’ve heard it said, everyone has a little Pope or Pharisee in his bosom.  Paul talked about this in his letter to the Galatian churches, where some false brothers infiltrated the church, sneaking the law in the back door: you have to believe in Jesus and be circumcised to be saved (cf. Acts 15:1).  People still do things like this today, mixing a bit of law with the gospel, mixing works with grace.  They talk about a “lawful gospel” or say that the gospel includes law, or they say that we are justified by faith alone – but define faith as “faithfulness” or “obedient faith.”  These types of statements have been used by advocates of the Federal Vision, which is why historic Reformed/Presbyterian churches have very decisively rejected Federal Vision teaching with a loud and unanimous NO.

In The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification Walter Marshall does an excellent job explaining how the law keeps creeping into the picture of acceptance with God (justification).  Sometimes, he says, people want to make conditions to the gospel.  Other times, people want to talk about law-obedience in preparation to salvation:

“We are naturally so prone to ground our salvation in our own works, that if we cannot make them procuring conditions and causes of our salvation by Christ, yet we shall endeavor at least to make them necessary preparatives, to fit us for receiving Christ and his salvation by faith” (p. 51-2).

Marshal goes on:

The error [of necessary preparatives] is pernicious to the practice of holiness, and to our whole salvation, in the same manner with that treated of in the foregoing direction [discussion], and may be confuted by the same arguments which are there produced. Whether holiness be made a procuring condition of our salvation through Christ, or only a condition necessary to qualify us for the reception of Christ, we are equally brought under those legal terms of doing first the duties required in the law, that so we may live.

Therefore, we are equally bereaved of the assistance of those means of holiness, mentioned in the foregoing directions, as union and fellowship with Christ, and the enjoyment of all His sanctifying endowments by faith, which should go before the practice of holiness, that they may enable us for it; and we are equally left to labor in vain for holiness, while we are in our accursed natural state, by which our sinful corruption will rather be exasperated than mortified, so that we shall never be duly prepared for the reception of Christ, as long as we live in the world.

Thus, while we endeavor to prepare our way to Christ by holy qualifications, we do rather fill it with stumbling blocks and deep pits, by which our souls are hindered from ever attaining to the salvation by Christ.

Marshall says a lot there!  Basically, he notes that whether a person says holiness is part of his acceptance with God or whether a person sees obedience as part of preparation for coming to Christ, both are examples of the law being mixed with the gospel – which actually gets in the way of justification and true holiness!  This is exactly what Luther’s first thesis says:

The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance humans on their way to righteousness, but rather hinders them.

Mixing the law with the gospel in any way, shape, or form, is a deadly concoction.  It’s something we need to guard against with all our Christian might.  Keep your back doors locked!

The above quotes were taken from Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, “Direction 7.”

shane lems

The Peril of Modernizing Paul

Justification Reconsidered Stephen Westerholm is a helpful voice for those of us opposed to the New Perspective(s) on Paul – perspectives which have been around for forty years or so.  In his recent book Justification Reconsidered, Westerholm explains and critiques the New Perspective(s) on Paul and also gives a biblical defense of the historic or classical perspective.  Since it is only 100 pages, this is a great book for those who want an introduction to this discussion; it is also good for readers who want to review the errors of the New Perspective(s) and be refreshed with a fine defense of the traditional view.

I especially enjoyed the first chapter, where Westerholm argued (contra the New Perspectives) from several of Paul’s epistles that the Apostle’s main emphasis wasn’t first and foremost ecclesiological (how Gentiles might get into the “messianic community”); rather it was soteriological (“how can sinners find a gracious God?”).  Here’s Westerholm – and I appreciate how he answers this question: “exactly who is modernizing Paul?”:

“The problem comes …with what Stendahl [an early advocate of what is now called the NPP] denies; and, ironically, it was precisely by modernizing Paul that Stendahl made welcome his suggestion that others, not he, had modernized Paul.  Our secularized age has undoubtedly thrust earlier concerns about human relationships with God into the background – if not rendered them completely unintelligible.  Conversely, in our multicultural societies, acceptance of people from ethnic and cultural backgrounds other than our own is more crucial than ever to community peace.  Both negatively and positively, then, Stendahl posits a Paul attuned to modern agendas.”

At the end of the chapter, after discussing the epistles to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, and Philippians, Westerholm concludes:

“How can sinners find a gracious God?  The question is hardly peculiar to the modern West; it was provoked by Paul’s message wherever he went.  But Paul was commissioned, not to illuminate a crisis, but to present to a world under judgment a divine offer of salvation.  In substance though not in terminology in Thessalonians, in terminology though not prominently in Corinthians, thematically in Galatians and regularly thereafter, Paul’s answer was that sinners for whom Christ died are declared righteous by God when they place their faith in Jesus Christ.”

Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), chapter 1.

shane lems