The “Old Mire” of Works-Righteousness (Luther)

  Although I appreciate almost any sermon by Martin Luther, there are some that brilliantly stand out to me. One of those is a sermon called “Concerning the Sum of the Christian Life.”  It’s a sermon on 1 Timothy 1:5-7:  “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion, wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions” (NASB).

At one point in the sermon when Luther was discussing “sincere faith” he contrasted faith in Christ to works of the law.  The law, he wrote, drags us to the judgment seat of God, shows all the ways we’ve disobeyed, and calls down the sentence of the Judge.  The gospel, however, is the fact that Christ is our mercy seat, and through faith alone in him alone, we find forgiveness and the favor of God.  Luther said that even though we might understand this reality, it’s very difficult to let go of the law and our works in order to hold only to Christ for acceptance and peace with God.  Here’s how he explained it:

Let him that will, try and enter upon the beginning of this matter, and he shall soon see and experience, how hard and difficult a matter it is for a man who has passed all his life in works of great holiness, to leave the whole and cleave with his whole heart through faith unto this Mediator only.

I myself have now preached the Gospel for nearly twenty years, and have assiduously devoted myself to reading and writing upon faith, and may justly seem to have emerged from this false opinion. Yet even now, at times, I feel that old mire sticking to my heart; under the influence of which, I would willingly so act towards God, as to take a something with me in my hand to him, for the sake of which he should give me grace according to my righteousness. And scarcely can I be brought to commit myself with all confidence to mere grace only. And yet it must be so, and cannot be otherwise. The mercy-seat must stand and prevail alone (seeing that he has set himself before us as the only refuge) or no one shall ever be saved.

…And I have no other consolation, no other help or hope of salvation, than that Christ my mercy-seat, who never sinned, who never was defiled with iniquity, who died for me and rose again, now sits at the right hand of the Father, covers me with the overshadowing wings of his protection; so that I doubt not, that through his benefits and intercession, I am safe before God, and delivered from all wrath and terror of judgment. Thus, faith sets nothing before itself to trust in rashly, but remains pure in all things by resting in Christ alone.

 Martin Luther, “Sermon VIII: Concerning the Sum of the Christian Life,” in Select Works of Martin Luther: An Offering to the Church of God in “The Last Days,” trans. Henry Cole, vol. I (London: T. Bensley, 1826), 542.

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

Rome, the Radical Reformation, and Exegesis (Muller)

 Among other things, the Protestant Reformation was brought about by a return to Scripture and it’s teachings.  Obviously, this is a huge discussion and it’s even hard to know where to begin when discussing this topic.  What got me thinking of this today is a paragraph I read in Richard Muller’s volume on “Holy Scripture” from his four-volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics set.  I’ll put the quote below (I broke it up to make it easier to read).  Notice Muller’s excellent comments on the radical Reformation.

The Reformers, operating at least initially in the context of traditional Catholicism, were able to adjust and revise certain key doctrinal points—like the doctrines of justification and the sacraments—by recourse to exegesis, while at the same time assuming the churchly stability of the larger body of doctrine.

(It was one of the functions of the radical Reformation, perhaps most forcefully in its antitrinitarian moments, to test this assumption and to demonstrate the impossibility of holding on to the larger body of traditional dogmatic formulations when the tradition as a whole was set aside.)

The Protestant orthodox, however, were left with the task of reconstructing a churchly and confessionally governed dogmatics in the context of a hermeneutical revolution. Doctrines like the Trinity, the Person of Christ, the fall and original sin, which had developed over centuries and with the assistance of an easy mingling of theological and exegetical traditions and of an exegetical method designed to find more in a text than what was given directly by a grammatical reading, would now have to be exposited and exegetically justified—all in the face of a Roman Catholic polemic against the sole authority of Scripture as defined by the Reformers over against the tradition and the churchly magisterium, a polemic made all the more telling by the presence of the teachings of the Radicals.

 Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy;  Volume 2: The Cognitive Foundation of Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 443–444.

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

Paul or the Papists? (Latimer)

The Reformation and the Irrepressible Word of God: Interpretation, Theology, and Practice

Hugh Latimer was a 16th-century English preacher who came out of the Roman Catholic church to join the Reformation because of its biblical foundation and emphases. The following is a selection from a 1552 sermon by Hugh Latimer which contrasts the Roman Catholic view of salvation with the Reformation view.   You can read more about it in chapter three of The Reformation and the Irrepressible Word of God.

The papists, which are the very enemies of Christ, make him to be a Savior after their own fantasy, and not after the word of God; wherein he declares himself, and set out and opened his mind unto us. They follow, I say, not the Scripture, which is the very leader to God, but regard more their own inventions; and therefore they make him a Savior after this fashion. They consider how there shall be, after the general resurrection, a general judgment, where all mankind shall be gathered together to receive their judgment: then shall Christ, say the papists, sit as a judge, having power over heaven and earth: and all those that have done well in this world, and have steadfastly prayed upon their beads, and have gone a pilgrimage, etc., and so with their good works have deserved heaven and everlasting life,—those, say they, that have merited with their own good works, shall be received of Christ, and admitted to everlasting salvation.

As for the other, that have not merited everlasting life, [they] shall be cast into everlasting darkness: for Christ will not suffer wicked sinners to be taken into heaven, but rather receive those which deserve. And so it appeareth, that they esteem our Savior not to be a Redeemer, but only a judge; which shall give sentence over the wicked to go into everlasting fire, and the good he will call to everlasting felicity.

And this is the opinion of the papists, as concerning our Savior; which opinion is most detestable, abominable, and filthy in the sight of God. For it diminishes the passion of Christ; it taketh away the power and strength of the same passion; it defileth the honor and glory of Christ; it forsakes and denies Christ and all his benefits. For if we shall be judged after our own deservings, we shall be damned everlastingly.

Therefore, learn here, every good Christian, to abhor this most detestable and dangerous poison of the papists, which go about to thrust Christ out of his seat: learn here, I say, to leave all papistry, and to stick only to the word of God, which teaches thee that Christ is not only a judge, but a justifier; a giver of salvation, and a taker away of sin; for he purchased our salvation through his painful death, and we receive the same through believing in him; as St Paul teaches us, saying, Gratis estis justificati per fidem, “Freely ye are justified through faith.” In these words of St. Paul, all merits and estimation of works are excluded and clean taken away. For if it were for our works’ sake, then it were not freely: but St. Paul saith, “freely.”

Whether will you now believe St. Paul, or the papists? …

-Hugh Latimer (see p. 80-81 of The Irrepressible Word of God).

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

Crespin, the Reformation, Martyrs, and Scripture (Manetsch)

The Reformation and the Irrepressible Word of God: Interpretation, Theology, and Practice In his contribution to The Reformation and the Irrepressible Word of God, Scott Manetsch spends some time discussing a book by Jean Crespin.  Crespin was a French Protestant who found refuge in Geneva where he set up a printing press around 1550.  He printed all sorts of Reformation material, including commentaries, Bibles, catechisms, and so on.  One of his more popular publications was something he penned himself: The Book of Martyrs.  It was updated and published thirteen times until its final edition in 1570.  As the title suggests, The Book of Martyrs is a compendium of stories about Protestants being killed for their faith during the Reformation.

We can learn a lot from Crespin’s book.  One of the major things we can learn from The Book of Martyrs is, as Manetsch notes, that “for sixteenth-century Protestants, the Bible was the people’s book.”  Manetsch gives several examples from Crespin’s book that highlight the centrality of Scripture in the Reformation.   One specific example that stuck out for me was the story of Jean Rabec’s trial and martyrdom:

The trial of Jean Rabec provides a good example of how Protestant martyrs appealed to Scripture’s authority against their Catholic opponents.  Rabec had once been a Franciscan monk who, having tasted evangelical teaching, renounced his monastic vows and relocated to Lausanne to study theology at the city’s Reformed academy.  After completing his studies, he returned to the city of Angers as a missionary to share with his fellow countrymen ‘the inestimable treasure of the Lord’s grace’ and, if possible, to ‘rescue from the abyss of hell those who were perishing.’

In August of 1555, Rabec was arrested and imprisoned when he was caught reading aloud the first edition of Crespin’s martyrology to a group of onlookers.  During the long trial that followed, Rabec was rigorously questioned by episcopal judges as to his views regarding the intercession of the saints, the Virgin Mary, purgatory, the pope, auricular confession, the Mass, transubstantiation, baptism, Catholic traditions, and monastic vows.

From his prison cell, Rabec wrote a precious letter describing his responses to his interrogation.  When asked about praying to the saints, he responded that the practice was ‘not acceptable, inasmuch as it cannot be proven from Scripture.’  When asked about papal authority, he answered: ‘I do not believe that there is any other head of the Church than Jesus Christ, inasmuch as Scripture proposes no other.’  Regarding the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception, Rabec was even more direct: ‘You have as the foundation of your [belief] an explanation based in the human brain; as for me, I have the Word of God.  Judge who is the most wise, God or you; and what is most certain, his judgment or yours?’  At one point in the trial, Rabec paraphrased the famous statement by Luther: ‘I would place more value in the words of a child who has the Word of God than the rest of the whole world who does not have it.’

After months of intense interrogations and cruel treatment, Rabec was finally excommunicated as a heretic, defrocked, and sentenced to death by burning….

Scott Manetsch, “I Have the Word of God” in The Reformation and the Irrepresible Word of God, p. 28, 30, 32.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

 

The Law Is Not a Remedy for Sin

 (This is a re-post from October 2010)

You cannot fully understand Martin Luther’s work unless you understand his distinction between the theologian of the cross and the theologian of glory.  This distinction is also important for us today especially when some are leaving the biblical truths of the Reformation for the traditions of Rome.  I myself will not and cannot go to Rome because I believe the five solas are eminently biblical and also because I believe Luther was right in declaring that Rome taught a theology of glory in opposition to the theology of the cross.

Interested in this discussion?  You should be.  And you should get this outstanding book, On Being A Theologian of the Cross by Gerhard Forde.  The book is sort of a commentary on Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation of 1518.  Though it is only around 100 pages long, it is one of the most profound discussions of the cross and salvation you’ll ever read.  The book will not only lead you away from Rome’s theology of glory, but it will also lead you away from yourself (your own righteousness, good works, and fig leaves) and lead you away from the things of this world.  It will lead you to the cross, and the cross alone.

I’ve blogged on this book before, so I won’t go into all the details.  But I do want to give an example of the contents of the book.  Here’s a small sample.

“The cross is the death of sin and the sinner.  The cross does the ‘bottoming out.’  The cross is the ‘intervention.’  The addict/sinner is not coddled by false optimism but is put to death so that a new life can begin.  The theologian of the cross ‘says what a thing is.’  The theologian of the cross preaches to convict of sin.  The addict is not deceived by theological marshmallows but is told the truth so that he might learn at last to confess, to say, ‘I am an addict,’ ‘I am an alcoholic,’ and never to stop saying it.  Theologically and more universally all must learn to say, ‘I am a sinner,’ and likewise never to stop saying it until Christ’s return makes it no longer true.”

“It is commonplace among evangelical Christians to believe that we can’t perfectly fulfill the law, but we often try to because we assume that if we only could we would do it.  Some believe that we must try to do something at least, and then, it is assumed, Christ will make up for our ‘shortcomings.’  But here is the bombshell: doing the law does not advance the cause of righteousness one whit.  It only makes matters worse.”

“The law is not a remedy for sin.  It does not cure sin but rather makes it worse.”

“Thesis 25.  He is not righteous who works much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.”

“Thesis 26. The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done.  Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.

I could go on and on.  Again, trust me when I say that you need to get (and read!) this book if you haven’t yet: Gerhard Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross.

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

Righteous in Christ, Not Ourselves (Calvin)

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.) In volume 3 of Tracts and Treatises you can find Calvin’s 1547 critical commentary on the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent.  It’s an excellent resource that not only sheds theological light on the central aspects of the Reformation, it’s also a wonderful and edifying defense of the solas and the doctrines of grace.  Here are some of Calvin’s helpful comments on the distinction between justification and sanctification:

It is not to be denied, however, that the two things, Justification and Sanctification, are constantly conjoined and cohere; but from this it is erroneously inferred that they are one and the same. For example: The light of the sun, though never unaccompanied with heat, is not to be considered heat. Where is the man so undiscerning as not to distinguish the one from the other? We acknowledge, then, that as soon as any one is justified, renewal also necessarily follows: and there is no dispute as to whether or not Christ sanctifies all whom he justifies. It were to rend the gospel, and divide Christ himself, to attempt to separate the righteousness which we obtain by faith from repentance.

The whole dispute is as to The Cause of Justification. The Fathers of Trent pretend that it is twofold, as if we were justified partly by forgiveness of sins and partly by spiritual regeneration; or, to express their view in other words, as if our righteousness were composed partly of imputation, partly of quality.

I maintain that it is one, and simple, and is wholly included in the gratuitous acceptance of God. I besides hold that it is without us [outside of us], because we are righteous in Christ only. Let them produce evidence from Scripture, if they have any, to convince us of their doctrine. I, while I have the whole Scripture supporting me, will now be satisfied with this one reason, viz., that when mention is made of the righteousness of works, the law and the gospel place it [righteousness of works] in the perfect obedience of the law; and as that nowhere appears, they leave us no alternative but to flee to Christ alone, that we may be regarded as righteous in him, not being so in ourselves. Will they produce to us one passage which declares that begun newness of life is approved by God as righteousness either in whole or in part? But if they are devoid of authority, why may we not be permitted to repudiate the figment of partial justification which they here obtrude [impose]?

…I, on the contrary, while I admit that we are never received into the favour of God without being at the same time regenerated to holiness of life, contend that it is false to say that any part of righteousness (justification) consists in quality, or in the habit which resides in us, and that we are righteous (justified) only by gratuitous acceptance. For when the Apostle teaches that “by the obedience of one many were made righteous,” (Rom. 6:19,) he sufficiently shews, if I mistake not, that the righteousness wanting in ourselves is borrowed elsewhere. …For however small the portion attributed to our work, to that extent faith will waver, and our whole salvation be endangered.

 John Calvin and Hendry Beveridge, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851), 115–116.

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

Purgatory, Grace, and Works (Hodge)

Systematic Theology (3 vols.) The Roman Catholic Church still believes and teaches that purgatory is real.  Paragraph 1030 of Rome’s catechism says this:

“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

Rome’s catechism uses good words like “grace” and “eternal salvation,” but this teaching is anything but good and it is certainly not biblical!  Charles Hodge wrote a helpful critique of purgatory in his Systematic Theology.  I’ll quote parts of it below:

The first, most obvious, and, for Protestants, the most decisive argument against the doctrine [of purgatory] is, that it is not taught in the Bible.  ….There is no passage that asserts it.  There is no evidence that it formed a part of the instructions of Christ or his Apostles.

…[The doctrine of purgatory] rests avowedly on the assumption that notwithstanding the infinitely meritorious sacrifice of Christ, the sinner is bound to make satisfaction for his own sins. This the Bible declares to be impossible. No man does or can perfectly keep the commandments of God, much less can he not only abstain from incurring new guilt, but also make atonement for sins that are past.

The doctrine [of purgatory] moreover assumes the merit of good works. Here again it is clearer than the sun that the New Testament teaches that we are saved by grace and not by works; that to him that worketh, the reward is a matter of debt; but to him who simply believes, it is a matter of grace; and that the two are incompatible.

What is of grace is not of works; and what is of works is not of grace. There is nothing more absolutely incompatible with the nature of the Gospel than the idea that man can “satisfy divine justice” for his sins. Yet this idea lies at the foundation of the doctrine of purgatory. If there be no satisfaction of justice, on the part of the sinner, there is no purgatory, for, according to Romanists, purgatory is the place and state in which such satisfaction is rendered. As the renunciation of all dependence upon our own merit, of all purpose, desire, or effort to make satisfaction for ourselves, and trusting exclusively to the satisfaction rendered by Jesus Christ, is of the very essence of Christian experience, it will be seen that the doctrine of purgatory is in conflict not only with the doctrines of the Bible but also with the religious consciousness of the believer….

 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 757–758.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI