Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Tag: justification by faith

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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A RELATIONSHIP WITH CHRIST

 

 

 

We sometimes hear it said that what we need is not religion, but a relationship with Jesus.  The statement, however, is a bit disingenuous.  If “a relationship with Jesus” is not “religion,” then what is “religion”?  Jesus was, after all, a highly regarded religious teacher, and to most people’s minds a relationship with Jesus is certainly religion.  So when people make the statement, how exactly do they mean by the world “religion”?  Usually they leave it undefined.  Presumably it is whatever bad experience one may have had with a church in the past.

There is, however, an element of truth to the charge.  It is sad but true that much of what passes for religion these days in the typical, modern institutional church has very little genuinely spiritual content.  The typical church functions as a social club, the pastor is a trained professional who is paid to perform certain administrative duties, and the Sunday morning service is little more than a mere formality.  Ironically there is very little sense of the presence of Jesus.  What is lacking is a meaningful relationship with Christ.

But what, then, is a relationship with Christ?  What does one look like?  The apostle Paul gives us a picture in Philippians chapter 3 in which he describes his own relationship with Christ.

By almost any measure Paul led a remarkable life.  Called to be the apostle to the Gentiles he preached the gospel throughout Asia Minor and Greece.  But in so doing he encountered ferocious opposition along the way, and his path eventually took him to the city of Rome where he suffered martyrdom.  His letter to the Philippians was written from a prison.

But what led him to take such risks, and expose himself to such dangers?  Why would anyone in his right mind persist in such a hazardous course?  In Philippians chapter 3 pulls back the veil a bit to give us a glimpse into his own heart.

He begins by describing his own religious background as a devout Jew.  He was “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5,6; NKJV).  In other words his religion consisted almost entirely in what he was what he did.

But when he became a Christian his whole perspective on life changed dramatically.  “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.  Yes indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (vv. 7,8)

But why?  What is so special about Christ?  Paul goes on to explain.

Paul says that he wants to be “found in Him” (v. 9).  This is a reference to union with Christ.  When a person repents of his sin, puts his trust in Christ, and is baptized, he becomes one with Christ; he is “in Him.”  And this, in turn, has several implications.

The first of these is the forgiveness of one’s sins, or “justification by faith” as Paul puts it elsewhere.  Here Paul draws a contrast between “my own righteousness, which is from the law” and “that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (v. 9).  In other words we are made righteous in the sight of God (justification) by an imputed righteousness.  Having been united to Christ by faith we are counted as Christ Himself.  We are credited with His righteousness.

But does this mean that having been forgiven we can go out and live like the devil?  Not at all, because union with Christ means several other things as well.  For Paul goes on to say “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection” (v. 10).  Note: Paul said that he wanted to “know Him,” not merely know about Him.  What he aimed at was a personal acquaintance with Christ, a meaningful relationship with Him.  This, in turn, means knowing something of “the power of His resurrection” – the life-giving power that transforms lives, the spiritual life within.

But Paul goes on.  He also says that he wants to know “the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (v. 10).  To follow Christ means to go where He went and experience what He experienced.  And Christ was eventually crucified.  And so too we are told that we must experience persecution.  “’A servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).

Paul goes on to compare the Christian life to a foot race in which “forgetting the things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (vv. 13,14).  It is a life of determined purpose and strenuous exertion in which we press on to the goal that lies ahead, and do not allow ourselves to be distracted by lesser things.

Paul goes on in the end of the chapter to lament the presence of certain false teachers who, he says, are “enemies of the cross of Christ” (v. 18).  He describes them as a bunch of hedonistic materialists (“whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame – who set their mind on earthly things” – does this not sound like the typical, modern consumer oriented American?).

Christians, however, have a different perspective on life: “. . . our citizenship is in heaven” (v. 20).  We belong to a different realm or state; and we live for the future, not the present, viz., the Second Coming of Christ “from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus,” who will release us from our present ills and inaugurate a glorious future.  In the words of the old gospel hymn,

“This world is not my home,

I’m just apassing through.

My treasures are laid up

Somewhere beyond the blue;

The angels beckon me

Through heaven’s open door,

And I can’t feel at home

In this world anymore.”

The problem with many churches today is that they have a “religion,” but it mainly consists in external observances.  There is very little real spirituality about it.  But God calls us to have a relationship with Christ.  Christ is supposed to be the focus of our attention, the object of our worship, the driving force in our lives.  A real relationship with Christ begins with a sound conversion – repentance, faith and the new birth; and it is fostered by a life of prayer and personal Bible study.  A relationship with Christ transforms us inwardly – gives us a new perspective, new values and new desires.  It leads to holy living and a life of non-conformity to the world.

May God send His church a revival!

“MERE” CHRISTIANITY

cs-lewis-ecrire[1]

C.S. Lewis

Review:

Mere Christianity

C.S. Lewis

Macmillan, 1960

190 pp., pb.

When dealing with a writer like C.S. Lewis one is always confronted with the question of whether the proverbial glass is half-full or half-empty. There is much to commend Lewis as a writer: he is intelligent, thoughtful and articulate. Lewis was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University and the author of the children’s stories The Chronicles of Narnia. As a former atheist who became a professing Christian, he is especially effective at pointing out all of the flaws in modern secular thinking.   But when he turns his attention to theology his work has serious problems of its own. As it turns out, his strength as an apologist is his weakness as a theologian.

His book Mere Christianity began as a series of radio addresses which were then published as three separate books between 1943 and 1945. The final printed version is divided into four parts: “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe,” “What Christians Believe,” “Christian Behaviour” (we retain Lewis’ British spelling here, even if Spellcheck doesn’t like it!), and “Beyond Personality.”

In the first part (“Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe”) we see Lewis at his best. Here he lays out the apologetical argument for belief in Christianity. He appeals to the innate human sense of right and wrong, and argues from that that there really must be an external, objective standard of morality; and that this, in turn, can be accounted for only if there is a Supreme Being. Lewis demonstrates convincingly that there is no adequate secular alternative. It is either God or nothing.

It is in the second part (“What Christians Believe”) that Lewis gets into trouble, and the chief flaw is contained right within the title of the book. He is seeking to defend “mere” Christianity, which he defines as “what Christians believe.” The problem here is that he is defining Christianity so broadly that it includes the Roman Catholic and Easter Orthodox churches, as well as Protestantism (he himself was a member of the Church of England). This means that instead of going to Scripture and expounding it, he is merely content to state what all the branches of professing Christendom hold in common. Unfortunately this means that he is hopelessly vague on the most important doctrine of all, the nature of salvation.

Lewis tells us that he does not want to commit himself to any particular theory of the atonement, but he is particularly dismissive of the one that is the most biblically orthodox, what is generally called the Penal Satisfaction theory. Biblically orthodox theologians, end even Roman Catholic ones, for that matter, have argues that Christ died as a substitute for those who would believe on Him, and effectively paid the penalty for their sins. All that Lewis will say, however, is that “Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start” (p. 57). “We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself” (p. 58). And that is as far as Lewis is willing to go.

And probably because he is so vague on the nature of the atonement Lewis was also vague on how we receive its benefits. He tells us that there are three means by which we receive the life of Christ: baptism, faith, and Holy Communion, but he will not tell us how the three relate to each other. “. . . I am not saying anything about which of these three things is the most essential” (p. 63). But the Bible itself is quite clear on the matter: we are “justified” (i.e., made righteous in the sight of God) by faith (Rom. 3:28; 5:1; Gal. 2:16; 3:24). Baptism and the Lord’s Table are signs and seals of that faith, the formal, outward means by which we publically express our faith and make a formal commitment to Christ. But what actually saves us (what theologians call “the instrument of justification”) is our personal faith in Christ alone as our Savior. (Note: there is no direct command and no clear example anywhere in the New Testament for baptizing anyone who cannot personally make a public profession of faith in Christ. Infant baptism makes about as much sense as a label on an empty bottle!).

Unfortunately Lewis even goes so far as to suggest that a person could be saved who had never heard of Christ at all. “We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him” (p. 65). At this point Lewis has quite taken leave of his senses.

The third part of the book is entitled “Christian Behaviour,” and here again he does not take a strictly biblical approach, but is content simply to lay out “what Christians believe.” Thus at one point he delineates the “seven virtues” – the four “cardinal virtues” (prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude) and the three “theological virtues” (faith, hope and love). These distinctions he borrowed from Roman Catholic teaching, and the Catholic Church, in turn, borrowed the “cardinal virtues” from Greek philosophy. But it is nothing less than astonishing to see Lewis, and the Roman Catholic Church, reaching to non-biblical, and even non-Christian sources, for guidance on morality! Sadly, however, it has to be admitted that modern evangelical Protestantism has tended to avoid the subject of Christian ethics altogether, and Lewis does have some helpful insights on the subject.

The fourth section of the book, “Beyond Personality,” entails a rather abstruse discussion about the nature of the Trinity, and here Lewis is not alone in philosophizing about the metaphysical distinctions within the Godhead. Lewis then concludes that section with a discussion about how to live the Christian life. But here it is hard to discern what role, if any, that the Holy Spirit plays in conversion and sanctification. At points Lewis seems to be saying that God uses natural means to change us – if we let Him – and that it is a slow, gradual process that lasts over a lifetime. Lewis concludes his book with a speculative discussion about what the future evolution of the human race might look like.

Part of the problem with Lewis’ approach to “mere Christianity” may stem from the fact that he was a member of the Church of England, a church which has typically tried to be all things to all men, and has sometimes tried to straddle the fence between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. But if a church is not soundly biblical in its theology, and especially if it is not clear on the issue of salvation, in the end it has nothing to offer a perishing humanity. The most valuable thing that the church can give the world is the truth, the truth about its predicament and salvation. If we genuinely care about our fellow human beings we will give them the gospel, and we will do this both lovingly and faithfully. Anything else is nothing less than criminal – it leaves men and women to perish in their sins.

Lewis has performed a valuable service to the church as an apologist. As a former atheist who converted to Christianity he was forced to think through the issues and arrive at some firm conclusions, and as a result he can present the case for Christianity very convincingly. We can only wish that he had done a better job of explaining Christian doctrine – as it has been revealed to us in Scripture!

GEORGE WHITEFIELD, EVANGELIST

George Whitefield preaching

George Whitefield preaching

    We recently had the occasion to read a remarkable sermon by George Whitefield entitled “The Method of Grace.” It is a fascinating example of evangelistic preaching and is well worth taking to heart today.

    Whitefield (1714-1770) was perhaps one of the most phenomenal preachers ever to preach in the English language. The famous 18th Century evangelist traveled extensively through England, Scotland and the American colonies, and was a leading figure of the Great Awakening of the 1740’s. He almost always drew huge crowds wherever he went. Untold thousands owed their conversions to the instrumentality of his preaching.

    The text for this particular sermon was Jeremiah 6:14, in which the prophet Jeremiah, speaking of the corrupt religious leaders of his day, said, “They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Whitefield then began his sermon with this striking observation: “As God can send a nation or people no greater blessing than to give them faithful, sincere, and upright ministers, so the greatest curse that God can possibly send upon a people in this world, is to give them over to blind, unregenerate, carnal, lukewarm, and unskilled guides.” Such preachers, Whitefield said, were prone to curry favor with their audiences by giving them a false assurance – by papering over the real and serious spiritual problems that plague the nation. A faithful preacher, however, will tell his listeners the truth, so that they might achieve a genuine peace to their souls.

    Whitefield then proceeded to do exactly that. He began by stressing that true religion is an inward thing, “a work wrought in the soul by the power of the Spirit of God.” Then he pointed to the fact that we are guilty of having committed actual sins. But even more that that, we are sinners by nature. “If we look inwardly, we shall see enough of lusts, and man’s temper contrary to the temper of God. There is pride, malice, and revenge, in all our hearts . . .”

    Whitefield pointed out that sometimes, when people first come under the conviction of sin, their initial reaction is to try to do better, — to try to reform their lives outwardly through their own effort. But without a renewed heart a person may be doing many of the right things outwardly, but for the wrong reasons, and that hardly gains credit with God. “. . . nature cannot act above itself. It is impossible that a man who is unconverted can act for the glory of God; he cannot do anything in faith, and ‘whatever is not of faith is sin.'” Even the good works of Christians are tainted by impure motives. “. . .my repentance wants [i.e., needs] to be repented of . . . Our best duties are so many splendid sins.”

    He then pointed out that many people who were reared in a Christian environment may think that they are Christians, when in fact they are not. They have what is sometimes termed “a historical faith” – an attachment to the Christian religion mainly for social and cultural reasons – lack what Whitefield called “a true faith, wrought in the heart by the Spirit of God.”

    Here we can see one of the most striking differences between Whitefield’s preaching and what often passes for “evangelism” today. Whitefield began by laboring to convince his listeners that they were sinners. Then, and only then, did he proclaim the promise of forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus. You have to get them lost before you can get them saved!

    Having described the lost condition of his unconverted listeners Whitefield then went on and came to the crux of the matter. In order to achieve genuine, lasting peace, “You must be enabled to lay hold upon the perfect righteousness, the all-sufficient righteousness, of the Lord Jesus Christ, you must lay hold by faith on the righteousness of Jesus Christ, and then you shall have peace . . . Before we can even have peace with God, we must be justified by faith through our Lord Jesus Christ, we must be enabled to apply Christ to our hearts, we must have Christ brought home to our souls, so as his righteousness may be made our righteousness, so as his merits may be imputed to our souls.” Here we can see that two different things are involved in salvation. One is the act of “justification,” whereby Christ’s righteousness is “imputed” or charged to our account, and we are thereby counted righteous in the sight God. The other element of salvation is regeneration, or the New Birth, the work of the Holy Spirit in our souls, convicting us of sin, bringing us to faith in Christ, and imparting to us spiritual life. The former element does not happen without the latter.

    Whitefield ended his sermon with a heartfelt plea to sinners to flee to Christ for salvation. He warned them of the danger of hell. He cited his own personal experience as an unconverted person. And even though he was a staunch Calvinist he urged his listeners to act, although he did not issue an alter call or ask people to walk down an aisle.

    Whitefield’s sermon is a startling reminder of what is involved in a genuine conversion, and what evangelism is supposed to be like. What is at stake is eternity, and what is involved is the inward transformation of the soul by the power of the Holy Spirit. And what are needed are faithful preachers who will boldly tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. May God raise up such men in our time!