Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: October, 2017

THE LEGACY OF LUTHER

 

martin-luther

 

This Tuesday (Oct. 31) marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  Specifically it was 500 years ago that Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany.   The theses, written in Latin, attacked the practice of selling indulgences on the supposition that penitent sinners could purchase the forgiveness of their sins by making a cash donation to the church.  Luther intended his theses to be an invitation to scholarly debate, but others translated them into German and distributed them to the press.  Probably no one at the time could have foreseen what would happen as a result.

The theses touched on just a small part of a much larger issue, viz., how can a guilty sinner find forgiveness from a holy and just God?  The Roman Catholic view, as it had evolved over the centuries, was that one’s sins are initially washed away in baptism, but that sins committed after baptism had to be dealt with through the sacrament of penance.  The sinner must make confession, show contrition, and make satisfaction.  This, in turn, could involve spending a lengthy period of time after death in purgatory.

But how can a guilty sinner make satisfaction for his sins?  That was the question that plagued young Luther during his early years.  Originally destined to become a lawyer, he was nearly killed one day by a bolt of lightning.  Terrified, he took a vow to become a monk and joined an Augustinian monastery.

But the monastic life brought him no peace of mind.   Try as hard as he might, he could not convince himself that he had won God’s favor.  But as he studied the Scriptures, especially Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and Galatians, he slowly came to realize that we are “justified,” i.e., made righteous in the sight of God, through faith. Christ died on the cross to pay for our sins, and we receive forgiveness by placing our trust in Him as our Savior.  For Luther this was an eye-opening understanding.

This is why Luther became so alarmed when Johann Tetzel came through the area selling indulgences, proclaiming “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”  Luther posted his theses, and the controversy was on.

Luther went on to write books, participate in debates, and make his famous stand before the Holy Roman Emperor.  He had to go into hiding, and while there he began his translation of the Bible into German.  Returning to Wittenberg he devoted the rest of his life to teaching and preaching, all the while under the ban of both the Catholic Church and Empire.  He wrote catechisms, reformed the liturgy, and composed hymns, including his famous “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”

Luther was a very capable and talented theologian.  But he could never have gained the insight he had or achieved the results that he did if God had not been at work achieving His own sovereign purposes in history.  Luther’s key insight (justification by faith) came about through an intense spiritual struggle.  And it was often Luther’s opponents who forced him to see the implications of his doctrine.  And in the end it was larger historical forces beyond Luther’s control that achieved the final result – the Protestant Reformation in all of its breadth and diversity.  But in the providence of God it fell to Luther to strike the first blow.

Was Martin Luther a perfect human being?  By no means.  He could be irascible, and intemperate in his use of language.  He was subject to bouts of depression.  In his later years he became increasingly hostile towards Anabaptists, Jews and Roman Catholics.  Even his fellow Reformers sometimes found him difficult to work with at times.  “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (II Cor. 4:7; NKJV).  The remarkable thing about church history is that an infinite, holy, all-powerful and all-wise God could choose finite, mortal and fallible human beings to accomplish His purposes here on earth.

The Protestant Reformation resulted in the recovery of the Christian gospel – the message of salvation by grace through faith.  Not that it had entirely disappeared; but during the Middle Ages it had been buried under layers of tradition, canon law and scholastic philosophy.  But it was during the Reformation that it reappeared in all of its power, grace and glory.  It has since then spread to the distant corners of the world, and untold multitudes have found salvation, the forgiveness of their sins, in Christ.  And in the providence of God it was Martin Luther who sparked the flame.

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WHAT IS GOD LIKE? – I

 

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Paul in Athens

 

But if God exists, what is He like?  What can we know about Him?

On this point it is important to emphasize that we must go by what the Bible says on the subject.  God must reveal Himself to us.  While we may be able to infer a few things about Him from the physical creation and have a vague sense of Him in our individual consciences, for the most part He must tell us what He is like.  We have no other means of knowing about Him.

The Bible, of course, has a great deal to say about God, and we cannot possibly summarize it all here.  However the apostle Paul did give a brief summary in a speech he delivered before an assembly of Greek philosophers in Athens recorded for us in Acts 17:22-31.  The Greeks at that time were pagans and had a polytheistic religion.  They worshiped idols in temples.  The irony of it all, of course, is that the idol had been made by human beings.  People were bowing down and worshiping lifeless images that they themselves had made.

Paul began by pointing out that God is the Creator – He “made the world and everything in it’ (v. 24; NKJV).  Because of that He is “Lord of heaven and earth.”  Since He has made it all, and it would not have existed if He had not created it, it all rightfully belongs to Him.  Moreover our continued existence depends upon Him: “He gives to all life, breath, and all things” (v. 25), and “in Him we live and move and have our being” (v. 28).  Once created we do not exist independently of Him.  Life itself is a gift from God, something He can take from us whenever He pleases.

In other words, Paul’s audience had gotten it all backwards.  God is not dependent upon us; we are dependent on Him.  He exists independently of us, not the other way around.  And that being the case, strictly speaking, God does not need anything from us.  “Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything” (v. 25).

What all of this means is that we owe Him our love and devotion, our worship and our obedience. God is the Creator of the entire human race, “in the hope that they might grope for Him, and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (v. 27).  God wants us to “grope for Him.”  The picture here is that of being in the dark, not being able to see, and groping with one’s hands to find the object being sought.  And this is a picture of our relationship with God.  We cannot see Him physically; His presence is not obvious.  But we must search for Him, and keep searching until we find Him.  He will not reward us for our apathy and indifference.  We must make the effort to seek Him by praying and meditating on His Word, and then we will “find Him” – we will receive salvation and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts comforting and guiding us.

The irony is that “He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we move and have our being” (vv. 27,28).  We are surrounded by God, our very existence depends on Him. Yet most of us do not know Him.  The tragedy of it all!

God, then, calls us to have a relationship with Him; but in order for that to happen we must make a conscious effort to seek Him.  He loves us; He wants us to love Him.  But we must never forget that it is not a relationship between equals.  He is infinitely greater than ourselves.  We owe everything that we have to Him.  We should bow down and worship Him in love, humility, and devotion.

THE BIBLE: A BOOK LIKE NO OTHER BOOK

 

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Codex Vaticanus

The extraordinary claim that the Bible makes for itself is that it is nothing less than the inspired Word of God himself.   “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God . . .” (II Tim. 3:16; NKJV).   “. . .for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21).  God spoke to Moses directly.  Others saw visions or dreamed dreams.  The Holy Spirit descended on others and they spoke as they were led by the Spirit.  The words that they spoke and wrote down were words in human languages, but the thoughts, concepts and ideas came directly from God himself.  The prophets themselves did not always understand the things that God was revealing to them.  They had to study their own inspired to try to understand what God had revealed through them (I Pet. 1:10-12).

But how do we know that the Bible’s claim for itself is true?  How do we know that the Bible really is God’s Word?  What about other sacred books – the Hindu Vedas?  The Koran?   The Book of Mormon?  Are all of them “inspired”?  Or are all of them, including the Bible, merely human productions?  Why would the Bible be divinely inspired and not the others?

First of all, the Bible is different from the others, and in ways that make it unlikely to have had a purely human origin.  It was composed over a very long period of time (at least a thousand years), by a large number of different authors writing in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek).  And yet in spite of all of the diversity on their backgrounds there is a remarkable unity of thought in the book as a whole.  There is only one God, the Creator of heaven and earth.  He is absolutely just and holy.  Mankind is fallen and sinful, but God is merciful and compassionate.  Sin must be atoned for.  And in the fullness of time God sent His Son into the world to die for our sins and make salvation available to the entire human race.

And then there is the phenomenon of fulfilled prophecy.  Events were predicted before they happened and they subsequently came to pass.   The New Testament writers in particular could cite a large number of Old Testament prophecies regarding the coming Messiah, and note that they were fulfilled in Christ.  The prophecies are remarkable enough that they could not have been fulfilled by accident.

But what is even more remarkable is the nature of the message itself.  On the one hand it presents a high standard of moral conduct.  Men are exhorted to love God and each other.  Pride, lust, greed, envy, jealousy and anger are all condemned.  In the end all human beings fall short of God’s standards.

Most books of human origin, however, glorify man.  They either excuse, rationalize or even condone behavior that is compulsive, anti-social and self-destructive.  And in most books of human origin there is at least one human hero who distinguishes himself above all others.  In the Bible, however, there are no human heroes – all men fall short of God’s standards.  The Bible views human life from God’s perspective, and this suggests that He is the true Author of it.  No human being could write a book of this apart from divine inspiration.

And then there is the manifest wisdom contained in the Bible. Philosophers and psychologists have propounded theory after theory, only to have them discredited over time.  But countless multitudes of ordinary people have found the Bible “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).  It provides guidance and gives solace to those who follow its directions.

But in the end it often comes down to a matter of personal conviction.  When the message grips your soul, makes you feel your awful guilt before a holy God and then gives you the hope of eternal salvation in Jesus Christ you almost have no choice but to believe.  It has to be God’s Word – nothing else could bring such conviction.

The Bible is God’s Word, then, and we owe it to Him to study it, meditate upon it, and apply it to our lives.  It is the key to understanding life, and our lives must conform to its principles fi we are to find any lasting happiness or fulfillment.  Our ultimate loyalty must be to God himself, and all human teachings, laws and doctrines must be evaluated in the light of His Word.

Too often today young people who were raised in Christian homes are merely reacting to their upbringing.  But what is often missing is a direct relationship with God himself.  But it is not a matter of “your pastor said this” or “your parents taught you that.”  Rather it is a matter of what God himself has said, and in order to know that we must each individually dig into His Word and seek to understand what it says.  Our parents, pastors and teachers are all fallible human beings.  God’s Word is the final authority.  By that we stand or fall.  May God give us the grace to search, understand and obey!

THE GAP THEORY REVISITED

 

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Sedimentary rock formation, Tioga Co., PA

 

Review:

Unformed and Unfilled: A Critique of the Gap Theory

Weston Fields

Master Books, 2005

245 pp., pb

 

In 1976 Weston Fields published his book Unformed and Unfilled: A Critique of the Gap Theory.  It is largely a rebuttal of an earlier work by Arthur C. Custance entitled Without Form and Void, which defended what is known as “the Gap Theory.”  Fields’ book was republished in 2005.

The Gap Theory is an attempt to reconcile the biblical account of creation with the findings of modern geology.  It had become apparent to geologists at the end of the 18th Century that the earth was very old, has passed through several successive geological ages, and that there had been forms of plant and animal life, such as dinosaurs, that had since become extinct.  The question then became how to reconcile the geological evidence with the biblical account of creation, which seemed to indicate that the whole process only took six days a few thousand  years ago.  One possible solution was proposed by the distinguished Scottish theologian Thomas Chalmers, who suggested what became known as “the Gap Theory.”

The Gap Theory posited the existence of an unspecified length of time between the original creation of the universe and the six days of creation mentioned in Genesis Chapter 1.  It assumes that some sort of disaster destroyed the original creation and that what is described in Genesis 1 is a recreation of the earth.  This, then, would allow for the long geological ages postulated by modern science.  The Gap Theory then became popularized in a footnote in the Scofield Reference Bible, as well as in Halley’s Bible Handbook.  A later version appeared in Unger’s Bible Handbook.

Dr. Fields, however, will have none of this.  In his view Ex. 20:11 and Neh.9:6 state that the entire universe was created ex nihilo in just six days, and that the grammatical structure of Gen. 1:1-3 will not permit a gap between verse 1 (“In the beginning . . .” –  NASB) and verse 3 (“Then God said”).  According to him the Hebrew “vav” (“and”) at the beginning of verse 2 links the three clauses of that verse (“the earth was formless and void,” “and darkness was over the face of the deep,” “and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters”) with verse 1.  Verse 2, then, would describe the condition of the world at the beginning of the process of creation of the entire universe, thus not allowing for a gap between the two.

Dr. Fields’ argument becomes quite involved and arcane at points; and sometimes, in the opinion of this reviewer, a bit too strained, with both sides (Dr. Fields and Dr. Custance) reading more into the text than is actually there.  E.J. Young, for example, whom Dr. Fields sometimes cites in his footnotes, connects the three clauses of verse 2 with the main verb in verse 3 (“Then God said. . .”).  Verse 2, then, describes the condition of the world at the beginning of the six day process described in the remainder of chapter 1.

What neither Dr. Fields nor Dr. Custance may have known at the time is that there is compelling evidence that points to a geological catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs and brought on the Ice Age.  A comet or asteroid is believed to have stuck the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, spreading a thick cloud of debris.  Gen. 1:2, then, could very well describe the scene immediately after the comet struck.  The sky was darkened; most life had been wipe out.  God then began the creative process anew.

This is not to say that there are no problems with the Gap Theory.  If Gen 1:14-18 were taken in a strictly literal fashion, the sun and moon simply did not exist until the fourth day of creation.  (In my scenario, as the debris in the sky gradually settled, light appeared first, on the first day, and then the sun and moon became visible later, on the fourth day.)

Likewise Paul’s statements that death came through sin (Rom. 5:12-17; 8:19-21; I Cor. 15:21,22) would pose a problem, since under the Gap Theory whole species became extinct before man had sinned.  But the Bible is concerned primarily with what has happened since the creation of man, not with what may have happened before.

Dr. Fields is right in not wanting to let secular science dictate our interpretation of Scripture.  Unbelieving scientists are quick to jump to conclusions that eliminate God from their worldview.  But it is God’s written revelation that gives us the interpretation of the mute facts of nature.  Science has often erred, and a new discovery will often overturn a previously held conclusion.  But we cannot simply ignore or dismiss the physical evidence.  While fossils do not prove the Theory of Evolution, they do suggest that the world is very old, and the evidenced cannot be ignored.

God is the author of both nature and Scripture; and if each is interpreted properly they do not contradict each other.  The two basic questions are, what can science actually prove?  And what does the Bible actually teach?  On the latter question it is not the aim of the Bible to give detailed scientific explanations of natural phenomena, or a detailed history of the cosmos.  It’s focus, rather, is on man, on his fall and redemption; and thus we must be careful not to make the Bible say more than it actually does.  On this point we think that both Drs. Custance and Fields may have been prone to take things a little too far.