Making the Legalist in Us Squirm (Luther)

 Martin Luther’s comments on Galatians 4:3 will make the legalist in us squirm.  But they will also help explain what “Christ alone” means for the guilty conscience:

The law does tell me to love the Lord my God, but it does not enable me to do so or to lay hold of Christ.

I do not say this in order that the law should be despised; nor does Paul intend this. It should be held in great esteem. But because Paul here is dealing with justification, he has to speak of the law as something contemptible and odious, for justification is poles apart from the law. We cannot speak contemptuously enough of the law when we are dealing with this matter. When the conscience is in this conflict, therefore, it should think of nothing and know nothing except Christ alone. The law should be completely removed from sight, and the promise of Christ alone embraced. It is easy to say this, but in times of temptation, when the conscience is struggling with God, it is the hardest of all things actually to do. When the law accuses you, terrifies you, reveals to you your sin, threatens your soul with the wrath of God and eternal death, then you need strong faith in Christ, as if there had never been any law or sin, but only Christ, grace, and redemption. You need to be able to say, “Law, I will not listen to you. The time has come for me to be free, and I will not put up with your tyranny any longer.”

Martin Luther, Galatians, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 198.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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The Government and the Christian (Luther)

 The Christian faith is not opposed to civil authority.  For example, Scripture calls followers of Jesus to respect authority, pray for leaders in positions of authority, and live peaceful lives for the benefit of society.  In fact, it is a proper interpretation of the fifth commandment to include obedience to those in authority over us.  Martin Luther understood this when he gave instructions on the fifth commandment and civil government.  Here’s a summary of what he said in light of that commandment and Romans 13:

[We owe the government] first, the payment of taxes, namely that each shall give the authorities such money and labor as is required of him.

Second, respect, that is, that we have sincere respect for government….

The third duty we owe government is honor.  …This means, first, that we recognize that government is from God and that through it he gives us much greater benefits.  For if God did not maintain government and justice in the world, the devil, who is a murderer, would everywhere bring about murder, so that none of us could be sure of life, wife, or children.

But God sustains government and through it gives peace and punishes and guards against the wicked, so that we may support wife and children, bring up children in the discipline and knowledge of God, have security in our homes and on the streets, that each may help the other, and communicate and live with another.  Such gifts are altogether of heaven, and God desires that we consider and recognize them as gifts of God.  He desires us to honor government as a servant of his and to show gratitude to it because through it God gives us such great benefits.  …If you knew that someone had saved your child from death, you would thank him warmly.  Why then are you not grateful to the government which saves you, your children, your wife, daily from murder?  If the government did not restrain the wicked, when could we be secure?

Luther goes on to note how we should pray for the government.  He also writes that it is true that some people abuse the ordinance of government, but government itself is not a bad thing since God instituted it.  It’s similar to marriage: sometimes marriage is abused by the wicked, but marriage itself is not wicked since it is an ordinace of God.

I appreciate Luther’s perspective on government.  It is true that no country is perfect.  There are sinful people in every government and every government rules over sinful people – that’s not a good mix!!  But when a government maintains even relative justice and relative peace in the land, we can thank God for that. It’s a common grace blessing.  Here in the United States there are many aspects of our government’s policies and laws that I disagree with, but I’m very glad that my family can sleep safely every night.  I’m also glad that I almost never have to worry about violent crime.  Reminder to self: Thank God more often for the protection and safety our government provides!

[Of course, there are governments that are so crooked that people are constantly worried about violent crime.  I don’t have time and space to expand upon that here and now, but Luther does talk about that as well in this context.  You’ll have to find it on your own or perhaps I’ll come back to the topic later.]

The above quote is found in volume 40 of Luther’s Works, page 281-284.

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

The “Old Filth” of Legalism (Fisher)

 Legalism is one of those things that keeps creeping up in the Christian life and in the Christian church.  For example, some people say that there’s a final justification which depends upon our works.  Others talk about justification by faith alone, but then go on to define faith as faithfulness.  Still others have rules for the Christian life or church that aren’t taught in Scripture, such as which Bible translation to use, how to dress for worship, which type of schooling is best for children, and so forth.  This error of legalism is nothing new, of course.  The church has been dealing with it a long time.  One good example is found in Edward Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity, where by way of dialogue he explains legalism and refutes it with Scripture and an emphasis on the gospel of grace.

In one section of The Marrow called “The Natural Bias Towards the Covenant of Works,” Fisher explains how people in general think according to the covenant of works.  That is, people generally believe that God is the great Master of heaven, and man is the servant that must work to receive wages.

“…It is the general opinion of men’s reason throughout the whole world, that righteousness is gotten by the works of the law; and the reason is, because the covenant was engendered in the  minds of men in the very creation, so that man naturally can judge no otherwise of the law than as a covenant of works, which was given to make righteous, and to give life and salvation.”

Fisher then writes, quoting Luther, that this view of the law and obedience

‘is so deeply rooted in man’s reason, and all mankind so wrapped in it, that they can hardly get out; yea, I myself,’ says he, ‘have now preached the gospel nearly twenty years, and have been exercised in the same daily, by reading and writing, so that I may well seem to be rid of this wicked opinion; yet, notwithstanding, I now and then feel this old filth cleave to my heart, whereby it cometh to pass that I would willingly have so to do with God, that I would bring something with myself, because of which he should give me his grace.’

In other words, even Luther struggled with the “old filth” of legalism, the idea that we can earn God’s favor by obedience.  Later Fisher writes this:

…It is to be feared that there be divers [many] who in words are able to distinguish between the law and the gospel, and in their judgments hold and maintain, that man is justified by faith without the works of the law; and yet in effect and practice, that is to say, in heart and conscience, do otherwise.  And there is some touch of this in us all; otherwise we should not be so up and down in our comforts and believing as we are still, and cast down with every weakness as we are.

What is the antidote or medicine for the “old filth” of legalism?  A constant and continual emphasis on the great truths of Scripture: we’re justified by grace alone, through faith alone (apart from all of our works), in Christ alone! We need to let these gospel truths saturate our hearts and minds – in doing so, we’ll be able to better fight legalism and it’s effects.

The above quotes are found on pages 105-106 of Fisher’s Marrow.

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

God Clothed in His Word and Promises (Luther)

Luther’s Works (55 vols.) Here’s a wonderful selection from Martin Luther’s commentary on Psalm 51:1a (Have mercy on me, O God, because of your loyal love! NET).  These comments have a lot to do with Luther’s critique of Rome’s “theology of glory.”  Notice how Luther talked about God “clothed in His Word and promises,” which have to do with Christ.  In fact, Luther’s contempt for the theology of glory had to do with his love for the biblical teaching of “Christ alone.”  We don’t find a loving, merciful God apart from His Word which reveals the suffering Messiah; this is the theology of the cross.  Here’s Luther’s comment:

“…Here at the very beginning [of the commentary on Psalm 51:1] you should be reminded of something so that you do not think that David is talking about God like a Mohammedan [Muslim] or like some other Gentile [unbeliever]. David is talking with the God of his fathers, with the God who promised. The people of Israel did not have a God who was viewed ‘absolutely,’ to use the expression, the way the inexperienced monks rise into heaven with their speculations and think about God as He is in Himself. From this ‘absolute God’ everyone should flee who does not want to perish, because human nature and the ‘absolute God’ are bitterest of enemies. Human weakness cannot help being crushed by such majesty, as Scripture reminds us over and over.

Let no one, therefore, interpret David as speaking with the ‘absolute God.’ He is speaking with God as He is dressed and clothed in His Word and promises, so that from the name ‘God’ we cannot exclude Christ, whom God promised to Adam and the other patriarchs. We must take hold of this God, not naked but clothed and revealed in His Word; otherwise certain despair will crush us.  This distinction must always be made between the Prophets who speak with God and the Gentiles.  The Gentiles speak with God outside His Word and promises, according to the thoughts of their own hearts; but the Prophets speak with God as He is clothed and revealed in His promises and Word. This God, clothed in such a kind appearance and, so to speak, in such a pleasant mask, that is to say, dressed in His promises—this God we can grasp and look at with joy and trust.

The above slightly edited quote is found in Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Volume 12, page 312.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Scottish Reformation: Patrick Hamilton

The Scots Worthies; Containing a Brief Historical Account of the Most Eminent Noblemen, Gentlemen, Ministers, and Others, Who Testified or Suffered for the Cause of Reformation in Scotland from the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century to the Year 1688 Patrick Hamilton (b. 1504) grew up in early 16th century Scotland in the Roman Catholic Church there.  He was very much a scholar, studying philosophy and theology under some of the prominent professors at St. Andrew’s.  He most likely rubbed shoulders with John Knox during his studies, but there is little or no indication that the two knew each other.  When Hamilton was 22 he began to grow suspicious of some aspects of Roman Catholic theology and practice.

During the 22nd year of his life, he left Scotland to study in Germany after hearing about Martin Luther’s teaching.  Luther and Melanchthon welcomed Hamilton and recommended that Hamilton study at Marp(b)urg under Francis Lambert.  While studying under Lambert, Hamilton began to feel the call to preach the gospel in his native Scotland.  Lambert warned him of the dangers of such a course, but Hamilton would not be dissuaded.

When he was just 23 years old he returned to Scotland and began to preach the gospel and rebuke Rome for her superstitions and corruptions.  (Here’s a sample of his writing.)  The Roman Catholic leaders, of course, quickly began to resent Hamilton and discussed how to get rid of him.  To make a long story short, Rome tricked him into visiting St. Andrews for a conference to discuss theology.  Hamilton argued his points well and in such a way that the Roman Catholic leaders could not refute him.  Knowing he had some support, Rome decided to arrest Hamilton and charge him for teaching heresy.  Below are some of the charge.  Rome arrested him for teaching:

  1. That the corruption of sins remains in children after their baptism.
  2. That no man is without sin as long as he lives.
  3. That no man, by the mere power of his free will, can do any good.
  4. That a man is not justified by works, but by faith only.
  5. That faith, hope, and love are so linked together, that he who hath one, hath all, and he who lacketh one, lacketh all.
  6. That auricular (private oral) confession is not necessary to salvation.
  7. That actual penance cannot purchase the remission of sins.
  8. That there is no purgatory.

There were other charges brought against Hamilton, including linking him to Luther; the ones I listed are some notable ones.  In February 1527, young Hamilton was burned at the stake as a martyr for Christ.

There’s one more aspect to the story very much worth mentioning.  While he was in prison, a Roman Catholic canon, Alexander Aless, visited Hamilton.  Aless did his best to get Hamilton to recant, but it was unsuccessful.  However, during these discussions, Aless actually was persuaded of the truths of the gospel and went on to teach them while criticizing Rome.  He was thrown in prison but later Aless escaped and went to Germany (to Melancthon) and England (to Cramner).

In God’s mysterious but good providence, he used a condemned man’s words to bring another man to faith; and this man went on to teach others about the faith.  “Faith of our fathers, living still; in spite of dungeon fire and sword!”

(The above story has been summarized from The Scots Worthies by John Howie, chapter one.)

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

 

 

Idolatry and Ingratitude (Luther)

 Luther’s lectures on Romans were given during the years 1515-1516 at the University of Wittenberg.  During this time, Luther himself was still learning and reforming, so his later lectures and writings are more developed than what you find in his work on Romans.  However, in much of his discussion on Romans he’s on the right track, so to speak.  Here’s a very insightful commentary on the themes of ingratitude and idolatry from Romans 1:21-23.

…People even today come to commit spiritual idolatry of a more subtle kind, and it is quite frequent: they worship God not as he is but as they imagine and desire him to be.

Ingratitude, namely, and the love of vanity (i.e., the sense of self-importance and of self-righteousness or, as one says, of “good intentions”) delude people terribly, so that they become incorrigible, unable to believe anything else but that they behave splendidly and are pleasing to God. Thus, they make themselves a gracious God, though this does not correspond to reality. And so they worship the product of their own imagination more truly than the true God himself, who they believe resembles this product of their fancy.

Here now “they change him into the likeness of their own imagination” (Rom. 1:23), which exists only in their corruptible minds that know only carnal desires. See, then, how great an evil ingratitude is: it produces a love of vanity, and this results in blindness, and blindness in idolatry, and idolatry brings about a whole whirlpool of vices.

Gratitude, however, keeps the love for God and thus holds the heart directed toward him. Because it is thereby also illumined, it worships, once it is illumined, only the true God, and to this worship there soon attaches itself the whole chorus of virtues.

Luther’s insight here on the text and the human tendency is quite profound.  Unthankfulness and idolatry are related, and Luther very well explains Paul’s teaching on that fact.  This is perhaps one reason why the Apostle emphasizes thankfulness in the Christian life (Eph 5:4, 5:20; Phil. 4:6; Col. 2:7, 3:17, 4:2, etc.).  So we “give thanks” in all circumstances, because it is God’s will for us in Christ (1 Thes. 5:18)!  The Heidelberg Catechism’s structure also picks up on this biblical truth: though guilty we are saved by grace, and our response is gratitude.

The above quotes are found on page 26 of Luther’s Lectures on Romans.

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

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