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

Historic Lutheran Hymnody

Product Details Around 10 years ago I ran across this outstanding collection of historic Lutheran hymns: Martin Luther: Hymns, Ballads, Chants, Truth.  Since I’ve been listening to some of them recently, I though it would be fitting to mention them here.  This collection of hymns contains 39 tracks, along with some brief narrative and quotes from Luther.  The hymns include “A Mighty Fortress,” “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands,” and many others.

The 4-CD set contains a beautiful booklet that has historical and theological notes along with lyrics to the hymns.  A chorale sings the hymns and various instruments are used, including Renaissance, Baroque, and some modern instruments.  You can listen to these songs on Amazon or the CPH website.  Here’s a sample of one of Luther’s hymns called, “We All Believe in One True God”  (note the creedal background of this song):

“We all believe in one true God,
Who created earth and heaven, the Father who to us in love
Hath the right of children given.  He in soul and body feeds us;
All we need His hand provides us; through all snares and perils leads us.
Watching that no harm betide us.  He careth for us day and night,
All things are governed by his might.”

“We all believe in Jesus Christ,
His own Son, our Lord, possessing an equal Godhead, throne, and might,
Source of ev’ry grace and blessing.  Born of Mary virgin mother,
By the power of the Spirit, Word made flesh, our elder brother
That the lost might life inherit; was crucified for all our sin
And raised by God to life again.”

“We all confess the Holy Ghost,
Who, in highest heaven dwelling with God the Father and the Son,
Comforts us beyond all telling; who the Church , His own creation,
Keeps in unity of spirit; Here forgiveness and salvation
Daily come thro’ Jesus’ merit. All flesh shall rise, and we shall be
In bliss with God eternally.”

Here’s an Easter hymn Luther wrote that utilizes the medieval biblical hymnody of Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy!).  It is called, “Jesus Christ, Our Mighty King.”

“Jesus Christ our mighty King,
Conquered death, broke its sting;
Now He is risen.
Our sin He left in prison.
Kyrieleison!”

“This Man born without a stain
Took God’s wrath, bore our pain,
Won restoration,
God’s peace, a free salvation.
Kyrieleison!”

“Sin and death He holds at bay,
Opens up life’s new day.
He can deliver
For He is our life-giver.
Kyrieleison!”

If you’re like me, when you listen to these type of solid theological hymns, it makes most contemporary Christian radio/music nearly impossible to listen to.  These Lutheran hymns are not about me, my feelings, or my entertainment; they are about God, sin, Christ’s salvation, the Holy Spirit’s work, the Five Solas, and Christian living (Luther even wrote a hymn called, “These Are the Holy Ten Commands”).

By the way, I noticed that the Amazon mp3 album is less than $6 right now.  Also, you can read the excellent booklet online here.  Enjoy!

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Sola Scriptura: What It Isn’t

Product Details The Reformation teaching of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) does not mean that the Christian alone reads the Bible alone and interprets it alone.  Sola Scriptura does not at all mean we should be Lone Rangers when studying God’s Word.

And historically speaking, we probably shouldn’t use Luther on trial at Worms as an illustration of what Sola Scriptura means unless we give it a fuller contextual explanation.  The Diet of Worms wasn’t at all “Luther alone and his Bible alone against the Roman Catholic Church.”

Here’s how Richard Muller describes it.

“…It is…entirely anachronistic to view the sola scriptura of Luther and his contemporaries as a declaration that all of theology ought to be constructed anew, without reference to the church’s tradition of interpretation, by the lonely exegete confronting the naked text.”

“It is equally anachronistic to assume that Scripture functioned for the Reformers like a set of numbered facts or propositions suitable for use as ready-made solutions to any and all questions capable of arising in the course of human history.  Both the language of sola scriptura and the actual use of the text of scripture by the Reformers can be explained only in terms of the questions of authority and interpretation posed by the developments of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.  Even so, close study of the actual exegetical results of the Reformers manifests strong interpretive and doctrinal continuities with the exegetical results of the [early church] fathers and the medieval doctors.”

Richard Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics vol. 2 p. 63-64.

shane lems

The Formula of Concord on Justification Sola Fide

 For me, one of the most debilitating aspects of moralistic theology is the way works sneak in the back door of justification.  One can see this open “back door” in the New Perspectives on Paul, the Federal Vision, and some Arminian evangelicalism.

In sharp contrast to this moralistic theology, I love this reformation statement on justification sola fide from the Formula of Concord (Solid Declaration) III (called “The Righteousness of Faith before God).

“Neither renewal, sanctification, virtues, nor good works are at all a form, part, or cause of justification, that is, our righteousness before God.  They are not to stand or be set up as a part or cause of our righteousness.  They are not to be mixed into the article of justification under any pretext, title, or name whatever, as though they are necessary and belong to justification.  The righteousness of faith stands alone in the forgiveness of sins out of pure grace, for the sake of Christ’s merit alone.  These blessings are brought to us in the gospel promise and are received, accepted, applied, and appropriated through faith alone.”

I think I’m going to memorize that.  One thing I love about the Lutheran Confessions is that they are clear – not ambiguous.  May God help us all be clear like that when it comes to the heart of the Christian faith – the work of Christ to save sinners.

shane lems

sunnyside wa