This page is mostly for personal and spiritual posts (a.k.a. non-fiction).
My fiction-only blog, about my novels and other similar examples of popular art, can be found here.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What Martin Luther would say to Donald Trump (from his commentary on Galatians 4:12-20)

I'm not enough of an authority on politics, or even on Luther, to know what the great Reformer would say about President Trump's political philosophy and practices.  I suspect that he probably would agree with some things and disagree with others, but I don't know for sure. What I do know, however, from Luther's commentary on Galatians 4:12-20, is that he would have a number of things to say about the way our President communicates, especially when he disagrees with someone.  (I'm sharing this for all of us, of course, but if by some chance you happen to see this, Mr. President, I hope by God's grace you will find it helpful.  It is intended to be constructive, unlike most of the criticism you receive.:)

The divinely inspired words in this Bible passage, and Luther's comments on them, provide us with a mini-seminar on how to effectively communicate with those we would like to correct or change with our words.  These are God's own principles, and therefore are always right to follow, whether or not they achieve the desired result.  But they often will be effective, when God's plan allows--definitely more so than the alternative.  Read the words of Paul in Galatians 4:12-20, and see if you can pick out the principles even before we discuss them...

"Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong. You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you."

Based on Paul's inspired example, and with Luther's comments to help us understand it, here are some principles for convincing those who disagree with us...

Express care and concern for them (v. 12a)

Paul says, "Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are."  As Luther writes,

Anxious lest he should do more harm than good, he is careful to let them see that his criticism proceeds from affection and a true apostolic concern for their welfare. He is eager to mitigate his sharp words with gentle sentiments in order to win them again....In beseeching the Galatians to be as he is, Paul expresses the hope that they might hold the same affection for him that he holds for them.

We request the same consideration for ourselves. Our way of writing is incisive and straightforward. But there is no bitterness in our heart. We seek the honor of Christ and the welfare of men. We do not hate the Pope as to wish him ill. We do not desire the death of our false brethren. We desire that they may turn from their evil ways to Christ and be saved with us. A teacher chastises the pupil to reform him. The rod hurts, but correction is necessary. A father punishes his son because he loves his son. If he did not love the lad he would not punish him but let him have his own way in everything until he comes to harm. Paul beseeches the Galatians to look upon his correction as a sign that he really cared for them.

Though our opponents may not believe us, it can never hurt to express love for them, and it may indeed help.  How hard would it be for us to simply say, while we are disagreeing, "I'm not trying to hurt you, I'm trying to help you" or "I'm saying this for your good"?  Of course we would actually need to mean that truly from our hearts, which is true of all these principles... I'll get to that issue at the end of the post.  But for now, here's another one...

Tell them you're not personally offended (v. 12b)

When we disagree with others, one of the most common assumptions they're going to make is that we are prejudiced against them because we've been hurt or angered somehow.  So they won't even begin to consider what we have to say.  So if we are hurt and angry, we should first deal with that before God, and when we are not, we should communicate about it.  Luther sums up Paul's approach very well:

"I am not angry with you," says Paul. "Why should I be angry with you, since you have done me no injury at all?" To this the Galatians reply: "Why, then, do you say that we are perverted, that we have forsaken the true doctrine, that we are foolish, bewitched, etc., if you are not angry? We must have offended you somehow." Paul answers: "You Galatians have not injured me. You have injured yourselves. I chide you not because I wish you ill. I have no reason to wish you ill. God is my witness, you have done me no wrong. On the contrary, you have been very good to me. The reason I write to you is because I love you." The bitter potion must be sweetened with honey and sugar to make it palatable. When parents have punished their children they give them apples, pears, and other good things to show them that they mean well.

Remind them of something good about your relationship (vv. 13-15)

Paul thanks the Galatians for receiving him initially, even though he had an apparently repulsive "bodily ailment."  Luther thinks this is a general reference to all the suffering and persecution the apostle endured, but I agree with some other commentators who say it was likely an eye problem that marred his visage considerably--because just a couple verses later he says that if possible they would have given him their own eyes.  But regardless of the exact nature of his ailment, Paul's point is that there was something good about their relationship in the past.  People are more likely to listen to those with whom they have shared some common positive experience, so we should remind them about that when we disagree.

Tell them you're not the enemy, and enlist them against a common foe (vv. 16-17)

Paul says, "Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? They [his opponents] make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them." This is especially important among Christians, who should be on the same team fighting against our common enemy Satan, who is constantly seeking to destroy our souls.  Luther writes,

"Do you Galatians know why the false apostles are so zealous about you? They expect you to reciprocate. And that would leave me out. If their zeal were right they would not mind your loving me. But they hate my doctrine and want to stamp it out. In order to bring this to pass they go about to alienate your hearts from me and to make me obnoxious to you." In this way Paul brings the false apostles into suspicion. He questions their motives. He maintains that their zeal is mere pretense to deceive the Galatians. Our Savior Christ also warned us, saying: "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing." (Matt. 7:15.)

Paul raised questions about the motives of those who opposed him, and we can do that too (without crossing the line into sinful judgments of their hearts).  "Why do you think they like you so much?" we could ask.  "Would they still be your friends if you started disagreeing with them?"  Or, "Don't think those who praise you necessarily have your best interests at heart."  Proverbs 29:5 says, "A man who flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his steps."

Talk to them in a parental tone, rather than a judgmental one (vv. 18-19)

Paul says, "It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!"

Would you talk to your young children the way you talk to your opponents?  Well, if your opponents are really wrong, then in that situation they are ignorant like children, and likely have been deceived by others.  So have some fatherly or motherly compassion on them.  As 2 Timothy 2:25 says, "The Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will."

Talk to them in person if possible, rather than in writing (v. 20)

Paul says, "I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you."  His words, and the following from Luther, are relevant with a capital "R" in our day of emails, Facebook, and the Twitterverse...

A common saying has it that a letter is a dead messenger. Something is lacking in all writing. You can never be sure how the written page will affect the reader, because his mood, his circumstances, his affections are so changeable. It is different with the spoken word. If it is harsh and ill-timed it can always be remodeled. No wonder the Apostle expresses the wish that he could speak to the Galatians in person. He could change his voice according to their attitude. If he saw that they were repentant he could soften the tone of his voice. If he saw that they were stubborn he could speak to them more earnestly. This way he did not know how to deal with them by letter. If his Epistle is too severe it will do more damage than good. If it is too gentle, it will not correct conditions. But if he could be with them in person he could change his voice as the occasion demanded.

Finally, make sure your heart is right before you disagree with someone.  All these principles are dependent upon us actually having love in our hearts for others, and the only way we can get that love is from God.  Romans 5:5 says that "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."  And Jesus taught that he who has been forgiven much loves much.  So I would like to end this post with a challenge (for our President and for all of us) to pray these words from David in Psalm 51:9-13:

Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
 and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
 and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
 and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
 and sinners will return to you.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Danger of Christian Idolatry (Martin Luther on Galatians 4:8-11)

"Christian idolatry" sounds like an oxymoron, because Christianity is a monotheistic religion that teaches we should worship only the one true God.  But ironically, Christians often find themselves in danger of creating and worshiping idols, even while they claim to be believers in Christ alone.  This is what was happening to the Galatians in the first century--they had left false pagan gods for the true religion, but now were being drawn back into a form of idolatry by thinking they had to become more Jewish in their spiritual walk and worship.

And the same kind of thing can happen to us in the twenty-first century.

In Galatians 4:8-11, Paul writes, "Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain."

Martin Luther summarizes Paul's message well in his commentary:

He tells them: "You have taken on teachers who intend to recommit you to the Law. By my doctrine I called you out of the darkness of ignorance into the wonderful light of the knowledge of God. I led you out of bondage into the freedom of the sons of God, not by the prescription of laws, but by the gift of heavenly and eternal blessings through Christ Jesus. How could you so soon forsake the light and return to darkness? How could you so quickly stray from grace into the Law, from freedom into bondage?"

Then Luther raises a really interesting question about the text, and answers it in a way that highlights not only the danger of Christian idolatry, but the profound truth that there really are only two religions in the world--one of grace (true Christianity) and one of works (every other belief system that exists). This is what makes the biblical gospel truly unique, and why getting it right is so important and necessary.  Hear the great Reformer's comments about this...

Why does Paul accuse the Galatians of reverting to the weak and beggarly elements of the Law when they never had the Law? Why does he not say to them: "At one time you Galatians did not know God. You then served idols that were no gods. But now that you have come to know the true God, why do you go back to the worship of idols?" Paul seems to identify their defection from the Gospel to the Law with their former idolatry. Indeed he does. Whoever gives up the article of justification does not know the true God. It is one and the same thing whether a person reverts to the Law or to the worship of idols. When the article of justification is lost, nothing remains except error, hypocrisy, godlessness, and idolatry.

God will and can be known in no other way than in and through Christ according to the statement of John 1:18, "The only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." Christ is the only means whereby we can know God and His will. In Christ we perceive that God is not a cruel judge, but a most loving and merciful Father who to bless and to save us "spared not his own Son, but gave him up for us all." This is truly to know God. 

Those who do not know God in Christ arrive at this erroneous conclusion: "I will serve God in such and such a way. I will join this or that order. I will be active in this or that charitable endeavor. God will sanction my good intentions and reward me with everlasting life. For is He not a merciful and generous Father who gives good things even to the unworthy and ungrateful? How much more will He grant unto me everlasting life as a due payment in return for my many good deeds and merits." This is the religion of reason. This is the natural religion of the world. "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God. (I Cor. 2:14.) "There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God." (Romans 3:11.) Hence, there is really no difference between a Jew, a Mohammedan, and any other old or new heretic. There may be a difference of persons, places, rites, religions, ceremonies, but as far as their fundamental beliefs are concerned they are all alike.

God never promised to save anybody for his religious observance of ceremonies and ordinances. Those who rely upon such things do serve a god, but it is their own invention of a god, and not the true God. The true God has this to say: No religion pleases Me whereby the Father is not glorified through His Son Jesus. All who give their faith to this Son of Mine, to them I am God and Father. I accept, justify, and save them. All others abide under My curse because they worship creatures instead of Me. 

Without the doctrine of justification there can be only ignorance of God. Those who refuse to be justified by Christ are idolaters. They remain under the Law, sin, death, and the power of the devil. Everything they do is wrong. Nowadays there are many such idolaters who want to be counted among the true confessors of the Gospel. They may even teach that men are delivered from their sins by the death of Christ. But because they attach more importance to charity than to faith in Christ they dishonor Him and pervert His Word. They do not serve the true God, but an idol of their own invention. The true God has never yet smiled upon a person for his charity or virtues, but only for the sake of Christ's merits.

As we're thinking about Paul's and Luther's warnings (to professing believers!) about "inventing our own gods," I thought this would be a good place to reproduce something I wrote in a former post about the false gospels that even Christians can so often be influenced by...

The legality gospel.  This is what the Paul and Luther were most concerned about in their times, and the problem still exists today in different forms.  Something is added to grace and faith alone as necessary for us to be justified (declared righteous) before God.  We are told that we cannot be saved without Roman Catholic sacraments, speaking in tongues, water baptism, membership in a specific church, or a plethora of other "works" that are stated or implied to be necessary additions to faith in Christ.

The morality gospel.  This is similar to the first, but defined more by what is not included.  Moral virtues and cultural values are encouraged, while Christ's atonement is minimized or even excluded.  This kind of teaching has been called "Christless Christianity" and "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," and has difficulty answering the question, "If your message was delivered in a Mormon Church (or even in a Muslim mosque), would anyone be offended by it?"

The immorality gospel.  This is the opposite extreme from the first two, saying that our repentance and obedience to God's law is unnecessary as a consequence or proof of saving faith, or even undesirable because we might somehow become legalistic or moralistic.  In other words, this false gospel says that people can be Christians and go to heaven even though they live a life of disbelief, disobedience and even disregard for what God has said in the Bible.  But although we should never think of our good works as the cause of our justification, we must realize that they are always the inevitable consequence of it.  As James said, faith without works is dead and cannot save.

The prosperity gospel.  Earthly "health and wealth" are not what God promised in His gospel--in fact Jesus said "in this world you will have tribulation."  That's not commonly thought of as one of God's promises, but it was.  And it's more realistic (and consistent with the true gospel) to expect and even embrace suffering and self-denial as an essential part of our journey down the narrow road, which is the way of the cross rather than the couch.

The universality gospel.  "All roads lead to heaven" is a slogan of this false teaching, which rejects the necessary element of exclusivity that is in almost all New Testament gospel passages (and illustrated repeatedly in the Old Testament).  Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me," and anyone who contradicts that is promoting a damnable lie.

The individuality gospel.  This is the idea, which has no precedent in Scripture or church history, that people can be Christians but have no connection to the visible church.  Especially prevalent in American culture, this is tantamount to saying "I want God as my Father but I don't want to be in his family" (see 1 Timothy 3:15, where the local church is called the household of God).

The liberality gospel.  This used to be called "the social gospel," but the primary purveyors of it have exchanged the term "socialism" for "liberalism."  But they have continued to espouse the idea that salvation is essentially achieved by the practice and advocacy of works of mercy and social justice.  They quote the Golden Rule, but fail to recognize that it is a summary of the law of God (which cannot save), and need to hear Luther on the crucial distinction between law and gospel.

The doctrinality gospel.  While perusing our shelves of books recently, my wife unearthed one that had been given to us years ago by some friends.  It was written by a pastor who taught that only Five-Point Calvinists are really saved....if people believed that Jesus died for everybody, for example, they were not trusting in Him alone and would be lost.  Ironically, I fear that was an example of people trusting in their theology rather than in Christ alone.  And I'm concerned that more subtle versions of this problem exist (especially among "Reformed" people), where we think "If anyone is saved, it's surely me" because we've come to a particular understanding of doctrinal truth.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Martin Luther, 16th Century Cessationist (from his commentary on Galatians 4:6)

I already covered the larger passage and its overall meaning (Gal. 4:1-7) in my last post, but I didn't have room there to reproduce an interesting and edifying section of Luther's comments, in which he spends several pages providing his readers with a doctrinal and practical "primer" on pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit). So I want to do it here.

The title above is an attention-getting wink at those who know about the theological controversy between "cessationists" and "continuationists," and is intended to highlight the fact that contrary to what some people think, the idea that the "sign gifts" ceased is not a result of modern rationalism influencing the 19th Century Princeton theologians like B. B. Warfield, nor is it a product of the dispensationalism that emerged in the same era.  Luther was neither, of course, yet he believed in "cessationism" in the sense that the work of the Holy Spirit is in some ways different today than it was during the First Century transition to the New Covenant, and before the completion of the biblical canon.

Luther explains that at the beginning of the section I'll reproduce below, and I happen to agree with him (see chapters 2 and 3 of my book Decisions, Decisions and this blog post).  But though I find those comments of his interesting, I'm much more excited about the rest of his "primer" on the Holy Spirit's work.  One reason is that it shows, also contrary to what some think, that cessationists can have a very robust theology of the Holy Spirit, and a wonderful, life-changing experience of his work.  We are not "ignoring the Spirit," as we have often been accused of.  We just focus on the amazing supernatural works of biblical inspiration, illumination, and application, as well as regeneration and sanctification, through which the Spirit brings to us the glorious blessings of faith and assurance.

But the biggest reason I'm excited to share the bulk of Luther's comments on the work of the Spirit is that my heart was so encouraged by them, and they're something that even my continuationist friends can agree with and rejoice in.  I do hope you all will be blessed by reading Luther's comments, such as these on the part of Galatians 4:6 that says, "because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts"...

In the early Church the Holy Spirit was sent forth in visible form. He descended upon Christ in the form of a dove (Matt. 3:16), and in the likeness of fire upon the apostles and other believers. (Acts 2:3.) This visible outpouring of the Holy Spirit was necessary to the establishment of the early Church, as were also the miracles that accompanied the gift of the Holy Ghost. Paul explained the purpose of these miraculous gifts of the Spirit in I Corinthians 14:22, "Tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not." Once the Church had been established and properly advertised by these miracles, the visible appearance of the Holy Ghost ceased.

Next, the Holy Ghost is sent forth into the hearts of the believers, as here stated, "God sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts." This sending is accomplished by the preaching of the Gospel through which the Holy Spirit inspires us with fervor and light, with new judgment, new desires, and new motives. This happy innovation is not a derivative of reason or personal development, but solely the gift and operation of the Holy Ghost. 

This renewal by the Holy Spirit may not be conspicuous to the world, but it is patent to us by our better judgment, our improved speech, and our unashamed confession of Christ. Formerly we did not confess Christ to be our only merit, as we do now in the light of the Gospel. Why, then, should we feel bad if the world looks upon us as ravagers of religion and insurgents against constituted authority? We confess Christ and our conscience approves of it. Then, too, we live in the fear of God. If we sin, we sin not on purpose, but unwittingly, and we are sorry for it. Sin sticks in our flesh, and the flesh gets us into sin even after we have been imbued by the Holy Ghost. Outwardly there is no great difference between a Christian and any honest man. The activities of a Christian are not sensational. He performs his duty according to his vocation. He takes good care of his family, and is kind and helpful to others. Such homely, everyday performances are not much admired. But the setting-up exercises of the monks draw great applause. Holy works, you know. Only the acts of a Christian are truly good and acceptable to God, because they are done in faith, with a cheerful heart, out of gratitude to Christ. 

We ought to have no misgivings about whether the Holy Ghost dwells in us. We are "the temple of the Holy Ghost." (I Cor. 3:16.) When we have a love for the Word of God, and gladly hear, talk, write, and think of Christ, we are to know that this inclination toward Christ is the gift and work of the Holy Ghost. Where you come across contempt for the Word of God, there is the devil. We meet with such contempt for the Word of God mostly among the common people. They act as though the Word of God does not concern them. Wherever you find a love for the Word, thank God for the Holy Spirit who infuses this love into the hearts of men. We never come by this love naturally, neither can it be enforced by laws. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

When Luther comments on the second part of the verse ("crying, 'Abba! Father!'"), he takes the verse very literally to mean that it is the Holy Spirit himself (rather than us) who cries "Abba! Father!" This once again is an over-literal reading by the great Reformer (see this post for another example), because rather than connecting this passage with Romans 8:26-27 as Luther does, it is better explained by the more parallel passage in Romans 8:15.  That verse says "we cry 'Abba! Father!'" by the work of the Spirit in us, and Galatians 4:6 is probably Paul's shorthand version of the same idea. (Plus, Luther's interpretation makes the text read like the Spirit himself has been adopted by God, or at least relates to the Father as his own personal "Daddy," and both of those ideas create problems with our trinitarian doctrine.)

But regardless of Luther's slight subject-verb misallocations in the following quotes, he once again "gets it right" when it comes to the gospel truth of justification by faith alone, and what it means practically for our spiritual struggles with sin, guilt, fear, and unbelief.  And notice that in the very last sentence of his comments, he actually gets the pronoun right, despite what he's said before...

The fact that the Spirit of Christ in our hearts cries unto God and makes intercession for us with groanings should reassure us greatly. However, there are many factors that prevent such full reassurance on our part. We are born in sin. To doubt the good will of God is an inborn suspicion of God with all of us. Besides, the devil, our adversary, goeth about seeking to devour us by roaring: "God is angry at you and is going to destroy you forever." In all these difficulties we have only one support, the Gospel of Christ. To hold on to it, that is the trick. Christ cannot be perceived with the senses. We cannot see Him. The heart does not feel His helpful presence. Especially in times of trials a Christian feels the power of sin, the infirmity of his flesh, the goading darts of the devil, the agues of death, the scowl and judgment of God. All these things cry out against us. The Law scolds us, sin screams at us, death thunders at us, the devil roars at us. In the midst of the clamor the Spirit of Christ cries in our hearts: "Abba, Father." And this little cry of the Spirit transcends the hullabaloo of the Law, sin, death, and the devil, and finds a hearing with God. 

The Spirit cries in us because of our weakness. Because of our infirmity the Holy Ghost is sent forth into our hearts to pray for us according to the will of God and to assure us of the grace of God. 

Let the Law, sin, and the devil cry out against us until their outcry fills heaven and earth. The Spirit of God outcries them all. Our feeble groans, "Abba, Father," will be heard of God sooner than the combined racket of hell, sin, and the Law.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

No longer a slave (Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians 4:1-7)

Something different for this post, as I'm continuing my devotional reading through Galatians and Luther's commentary on it.  I couldn't get this song out of my head while I was reading about Galatians 4:1-7, so I thought I'd stick it in yours and refer to it along the way (with a special little twist at the end)...

(I tried to find an old hymn to post also, for those of you who might not prefer contemporary music, but believe it or not, I couldn't find one that captures the truth of the passage nearly as well as that one...yes, classic hymnology has its limitations and drawbacks too:).  Here's the full text of Paul's words, and then some of Luther's comments, with the song echoing along the way...

"Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a slave although he is owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father. So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God."

Luther writes:

The Apostle had apparently finished his discourse on justification when this illustration of the youthful heir occurred to him. He throws it in for good measure. He knows that plain people are sooner impressed by an apt illustration than by learned discussion. "I want to give you another illustration from everyday everyday life," he writes to the Galatians. "As long as an heir is under age he is treated very much like a servant. He is not permitted to order his own affairs. He is kept under constant surveillance. Such discipline is good for him, otherwise he would waste his inheritance in no time. This discipline, however, is not to last forever. It is to last only until 'the time appointed of the father.' "

I've always puzzled over Paul's reference to "the elemental things of the world," both here in verse 3 and also in Colossians 2:20, and I think Luther's understanding of it makes a lot of sense...

By the elements of the world the Apostle does not understand the physical elements, as some have thought. In calling the Law "the elements of the world" Paul means to say that the Law is something material, mundane, earthly. It may restrain evil, but it does not deliver from sin. The Law does not justify; it does not bring a person to heaven. I do not obtain eternal life because I do not kill, commit adultery, steal, etc. Such mere outward decency does not constitute Christianity. The heathen observe the same restraints to avoid punishment or to secure the advantages of a good reputation. In the last analysis such restraint is simple hypocrisy. When the Law exercises its higher function it accuses and condemns the conscience. All these effects of the Law cannot be called divine or heavenly. These effects are elements of the world.

So by calling the law part of the "elemental principles of the world," Paul is simply contrasting it with the work of the Spirit through the gospel, like he does elsewhere when he says things like "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6).  I'm no longer to slave to fear, worried about doing enough good to make myself righteous, but I am a child of God through simple faith in Christ.
(Hear the song in your head?:)  As Luther explains further,

I do not mean to give the impression that the Law should be despised. Neither does Paul intend to leave that impression. The Law ought to be honored. But when it is a matter of justification before God, Paul had to speak disparagingly of the Law, because the Law has nothing to do with justification. If it thrusts its nose into the business of justification we must talk harshly to the Law to keep it in its place. The conscience ought not to be on speaking terms with the Law. The conscience ought to know only Christ. To say this is easy, but in times of trial, when the conscience writhes in the presence of God, it is not so easy to do. As such times we are to believe in Christ as if there were no Law or sin anywhere, but only Christ. We ought to say to the Law: "Mister Law, I do not get you. You stutter so much. I don't think that you have anything to say to me."

Then when commenting on the second half of the passage (adoption through Christ), Luther seems to speak of assurance as the essence of faith, which raises a deep theological issue that I won't go into here.  But I will say that even if the great Reformer may have overstated the case a bit in his reaction to Romanism (as he's been known to do), his practical, pastoral advice about "preaching the gospel to yourself" still definitely rings true.  (See this blog post for more on that idea.) Luther writes,

St. Augustine observed that "every man is certain of his faith, if he has faith." This the Romanists deny. "God forbid," they exclaim piously, "that I should ever be so arrogant as to think that I stand in grace, that I am holy, or that I have the Holy Ghost." We ought to feel sure that we stand in the grace of God, not in view of our own worthiness, but through the good services of Christ. As certain as we are that Christ pleases God, so sure ought we to be that we also please God, because Christ is in us. And although we daily offend God by our sins, yet as often as we sin, God's mercy bends over us. Therefore sin cannot get us to doubt the grace of God. Our certainty is of Christ, that mighty Hero who overcame the Law, sin, death, and all evils. So long as He sits at the right hand of God to intercede for us, we have nothing to fear from the anger of God. 

I'm no longer a slave to fear... 

This inner assurance of the grace of God is accompanied by outward indications such as gladly to hear, preach, praise, and to confess Christ, to do one's duty in the station in which God has placed us, to aid the needy, and to comfort the sorrowing. These are the affidavits of the Holy Spirit testifying to our favorable standing with God. If we could be fully persuaded that we are in the good grace of God, that our sins are forgiven, that we have the Spirit of Christ, that we are the beloved children of God, we would be ever so happy and grateful to God. But because we often feel fear and doubt we cannot come to that happy certainty. 

...I am a child of God.

Train your conscience to believe that God approves of you. Fight it out with doubt. Gain assurance through the Word of God. Say: "I am all right with God. I have the Holy Ghost. Christ, in whom I do believe, makes me worthy. I gladly hear, read, sing, and write of Him. I would like nothing better than that Christ's Gospel be known throughout the world and that many, many be brought to faith in Him."

Finally, Luther sums up Paul's entire illustration, and the whole point of it, in brilliant fashion:

A son is an heir, not by virtue of high accomplishments, but by virtue of his birth. He is a mere recipient. His birth makes him an heir, not his labors. In exactly the same way we obtain the eternal gifts of righteousness, resurrection, and everlasting life. We obtain them not as agents, but as beneficiaries. We are the children and heirs of God through faith in Christ. We have Christ to thank for everything.

I too thank Jesus Christ that I'm no longer a slave to fear... I am a child of God.  

Is the song still there in your head?  I hope so.  But let me say in conclusion that there is one weakness I see in the song... Paul's teaching in Galatians 4:1-7 is actually much broader than just the problem of fear.  Based on it, we could also say this:

I'm no longer a slave to sin, because the Spirit enables me to say no to it.

I'm no longer a slave to purposelessness, because adoption into God's family means I can actually play an important role in his kingdom work.

I'm no longer a slave to the spectre of death, because I have an eternal inheritance awaiting me.

I'm no longer a slave to what people think or say about me, because I am deeply and intimately loved by my "Daddy" in heaven!

And so on.... (perhaps you can fill in some more)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

"Law and Gospel cross paths continually" (Luther on Galatians 3:23-29)

In this passage Paul makes a third argument for why observance of the Old Testament Law cannot be a requirement for justification (being declared righteous before God).  He first argues from the timing of the law (see my discussion here), then from its purpose (discussion here), and now he talks about the fact that it was a temporary measure intended to lead to a more permanent worldwide kingdom where believers from all races and cultures would be equal before God:

"But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise."

We could discuss this passage in relation to the age-old question of how the OT law applies to the NT believer...a question that Christians answer in a variety of ways.  But I want to focus on some teaching from Luther that I think just about everybody can agree on.  His own perspective, though often rather unclear, was probably more on the "discontinuity" end of the spectrum, meaning that he believed much of the OT law was not binding on the NT believer.  But because he extrapolates his application of the text to the principle of law, which includes even the commands of the NT, what he says about it also works for those who hold more of a "continuity" approach.  More importantly, though, his words ring true to the practical experience that all true believers have in our relationship with the Lord, and what should happen in the hearts of those who don't know him yet...

We know that Paul has reference to the time of Christ's coming. It was then that faith and the object of faith were fully revealed. But we may apply the historical fact to our inner life. When Christ came He abolished the Law and brought liberty and life to light. This He continues to do in the hearts of the believers. The Christian has a body in whose members, as Paul says, sin dwells and wars. I take sin to mean not only the deed but root, tree, fruit, and all. A Christian may perhaps not fall into the gross sins of murder, adultery, theft, but he is not free from impatience, complaints, hatreds, and blasphemy of God. As carnal lust is strong in a young man, in a man of full age the desire for glory, and in an old man covetousness, so impatience, doubt, and hatred of God often prevail in the hearts of sincere Christians. Examples of these sins may be garnered from the Psalms, Job, Jeremiah, and all the Sacred Scriptures. 

Accordingly each Christian continues to experience in his heart times of the Law and times of the Gospel. The times of the Law are discernible by heaviness of heart, by a lively sense of sin, and a feeling of despair brought on by the Law. These periods of the Law will come again and again as long as we live. To mention my own case. There are many times when I find fault with God and am impatient with Him. The wrath and the judgment of God displease me, my wrath and impatience displease Him. Then is the season of the Law, when "the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh." 

The time of grace returns when the heart is enlivened by the promise of God's mercy. It soliloquizes: "Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? Can you see nothing but law, sin, death, and hell? Is there no grace, no forgiveness, no joy, peace, life, heaven, no Christ and God? Trouble me no more, my soul. Hope in God who has not spared His own dear Son but has given Him into death for thy sins." When the Law carries things too far, say: "Mister Law, you are not the whole show. There are other and better things than you. They tell me to trust in the Lord." 

There is a time for the Law and a time for grace. Let us study to be good timekeepers. It is not easy. Law and grace may be miles apart in essence, but in the heart, they are pretty close together. In the heart fear and trust, sin and grace, Law and Gospel cross paths continually.

Luther describes the same dynamic of the law and gospel "crossing paths" when he comments on the famous verse that says "the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith"...

Teachers are indispensable, otherwise the children would grow up without discipline, instruction, and training. But how long are the scolding and the whippings of the schoolmaster to continue? Only for a time, until the boy has been trained to be a worthy heir of his father. No father wants his son to be whipped all the time. The discipline is to last until the boy has been trained to be his father's worthy successor.

When a person feels the full force of the Law he is likely to think: I have transgressed all the commandments of God; I am guilty of eternal death. If God will spare me I will change and live right from now on. This natural but entirely wrong reaction to the Law has bred the many ceremonies and works devised to earn grace and remission of sins.

The best the Law can do for us is to prepare us for a new birth through faith in Christ Jesus. Faith in Christ regenerates us into the children of God. St. John bears witness to this in his Gospel: "As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name." (John 1:12.) What tongue of man or angel can adequately extol the mercy of God toward us miserable sinners in that He adopted us for His own children and fellow-heirs with His Son by the simple means of faith in Christ Jesus!


Friday, September 15, 2017

Luther's Law/Gospel Distinction (in his commentary on Galatians 3:19-22)

In this passage Paul continues his multiple arguments for why obedience to the Old Testament Law cannot be a requirement or basis for justification.  He first argued from its timing, or the fact that the promise of the gospel came to Abraham long before the law was given to Moses (vv. 15-18, see my last post.)  He will go on to argue from the temporary nature of the OT Law (vv. 23-28, see my next post), but here he argues from the purpose of the law...

"Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the [ad]agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one. Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe."

I want to let Martin Luther speak to this primarily, since the law/gospel distinction was such a distinctive of his teaching.  But I wanted to say a word first about how he is often criticized for making too sharp of a distinction between the two.  That criticism certainly can't be made from his comments on Galatians 3, in my opinion, because Paul's whole point here is to make that distinction (regarding justification, of course).  Paul clearly distinguishes law and promise (i.e. the gospel) and in verse 12 even distinguishes it from faith (i.e. our saving response to the gospel).  The most cogent criticism of Luther I can think of is that Paul was talking about the Mosaic Law, while Luther applied it to the principle of law, which includes all the commands of God in Scripture, and good works in general rather than merely circumcision and other OT observances.  But that is the task of the expositor, to take the universal ideas communicated in the text and apply it to his current culture and situation. That's what Paul himself was doing in Galatians 3, in fact, and that's what Luther is doing in his commentary.

Notice how he did it not only with doctrinal clarity, but practical and pastoral concern for how it affected the daily lives of people...

The question naturally arises: If the Law was not given for righteousness or salvation, why was it given? Why did God give the Law in the first place if it cannot justify a person? The Jews believed if they kept the Law they would be saved. When they heard that the Gospel proclaimed a Christ who had come into the world to save sinners and not the righteous; when they heard that sinners were to enter the kingdom of heaven before the righteous, the Jews were very much put out. They murmured: "These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day." (Matthew 20:12.) They complained that the heathen who at one time had been worshipers of idols obtained grace without the drudgery of the Law that was theirs. Today we hear the same complaints. "What was the use of our having lived in a cloister, twenty, thirty, forty years; what was the sense of having vowed chastity, poverty, obedience; what good are all the masses and canonical hours that we read; what profit is there in fasting, praying, etc., if any man or woman, any beggar or scour woman is to be made equal to us, or even be considered more acceptable unto God than we?"

After explaining the first purpose of the law (to restrain evil in civil society), Luther gets to the heart of the matter...

The second purpose of the Law is spiritual and divine. Paul describes this spiritual purpose of the Law in the words, "Because of transgressions," i.e., to reveal to a person his sin, blindness, misery, his ignorance, hatred, and contempt of God, his death, hell, and condemnation. This is the principal purpose of the Law and its most valuable contribution. As long as a person is not a murderer, adulterer, thief, he would swear that he is righteous. How is God going to humble such a person except by the Law? The Law is the hammer of death, the thunder of hell, and the lightning of God's wrath to bring down the proud and shameless hypocrites. When the Law was instituted on Mount Sinai it was accompanied by lightning, by storms, by the sound of trumpets, to tear to pieces that monster called self-righteousness. As long as a person thinks he is right he is going to be incomprehensibly proud and presumptuous. He is going to hate God, despise His grace and mercy, and ignore the promises in Christ. The Gospel of the free forgiveness of sins through Christ will never appeal to the self-righteous. This monster of self-righteousness, this stiff-necked beast, needs a big axe. And that is what the Law is, a big axe. Accordingly, the proper use and function of the Law is to threaten until the conscience is scared stiff.

We want it understood that we do not reject the Law as our opponents claim. On the contrary, we uphold the Law. We say the Law is good if it is used for the purposes for which it was designed, to check civil transgression, and to magnify spiritual transgressions. The Law is also a light like the Gospel. But instead of revealing the grace of God, righteousness, and life, the Law brings sin, death, and the wrath of God to light. This is the business of the Law, and here the business of the Law ends, and should go no further. The business of the Gospel, on the other hand, is to quicken, to comfort, to raise the fallen. The Gospel carries the news that God for Christ's sake is merciful to the most unworthy sinners, if they will only believe that Christ by His death has delivered them from sin and everlasting death unto grace, forgiveness, and everlasting life. By keeping in mind the difference between the Law and the Gospel we let each perform its special task. Of this difference between the Law and the Gospel nothing can be discovered in the writings of the monks or scholastics, nor for that matter in the writings of the ancient fathers. Augustine understood the difference somewhat. Jerome and others knew nothing of it. The silence in the Church concerning the difference between the Law and the Gospel has resulted in untold harm. Unless a sharp distinction is maintained between the purpose and function of the Law and the Gospel, the Christian doctrine cannot be kept free from error.

The Law is a mirror to show a person what he is like, a sinner who is guilty of death, and worthy of everlasting punishment. What is this bruising and beating by the hand of the Law to accomplish? This, that we may find the way to grace. The Law is an usher to lead the way to grace. God is the God of the humble, the miserable, the afflicted. It is His nature to exalt the humble, to comfort the sorrowing, to heal the broken-hearted, to justify the sinners, and to save the condemned. The fatuous idea that a person can be holy by himself denies God the pleasure of saving sinners. God must therefore first take the sledge-hammer of the Law in His fists and smash the beast of self-righteousness and its brood of self-confidence, confidence, self-wisdom, self-righteousness, and self-help. When the conscience has been thoroughly frightened by the Law it welcomes the Gospel of grace with its message of a Savior who came into the world, not to break the bruised reed, nor to quench the smoking flax, but to preach glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, and to grant forgiveness of sins to all the captives. Man's folly, however, is so prodigious that instead of embracing the message of grace with its guarantee of the forgiveness of sin for Christ's sake, man finds himself more laws to satisfy his conscience. "If I live," says he, "I will mend my life. I will do this, I will do that." Man, if you don't do the very opposite, if you don't send Moses with the Law back to Mount Sinai and take the hand of Christ, pierced for your sins, you will never be saved. When the Law drives you to the point of despair, let it drive you a little farther, let it drive you straight into the arms of Jesus who says: "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

Paul's references to a "mediator" (v. 20) and "the promise by faith in Jesus Christ" (v. 22) give Luther all the excuse he needs to talk about his favorite subject (yes, even more beloved than the law/gospel distinction), which is our wonderful Savior, and how we can have a personal relationship with him...

That better mediator is Jesus Christ. He does not change the voice of the Law, nor does He hide the Law with a veil. He takes the full blast of the wrath of the Law and fulfills its demands most meticulously.... The proverb has it that Hunger is the best cook. The Law makes afflicted consciences hungry for Christ. Christ tastes good to them. Hungry hearts appreciate Christ. Thirsty souls are what Christ wants. He invites them: "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Christ's benefits are so precious that He will dispense them only to those who need them and really desire them.

Monday, September 11, 2017

How did we ever make it without...? (Luther's commentary on Galatians 3:15-18)

In the second half of Galatians 3, Paul makes three arguments in his case that observance of the Old Testament Law (or Mosaic Law) is not required for justification.  The first is the timing of the OT Law (vv. 15-18), the second is the purpose of the OT law (vv. 19-22), and the third is that the OT Law was temporary (vv. 23-25).  I was planning to cover all three in this post, to get farther through the book for some of you who are reading Luther's commentary along with me (you're going too fast for me!:), but the great Reformer had too many good quotes on the first argument, and I wanted to add a few of my own thoughts.  So I'll just cover the first one here.  (But I'll try to post about the others soon, so no one gets too far ahead of me in the reading.)

Galatians 3:15-18 says, "Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, 'And to seeds,' as referring to many, but rather to one, 'And to your seed,' that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise."

Luther explains Paul's argument in a very clear and helpful way:

God did well in giving the promise so many years before the Law, that it may never be said that righteousness is granted through the Law and not through the promise. If God had meant for us to be justified by the Law, He would have given the Law four hundred and thirty years before the promise, at least He would have given the Law at the same time He gave the promise. But He never breathed a word about the Law until four hundred years after. The promise is therefore better than the Law. The Law does not cancel the promise, but faith in the promised Christ cancels the Law. 

The Apostle is careful to mention the exact number of four hundred and thirty years. The wide divergence in the time between the promise and the Law helps to clinch Paul's argument that righteousness is not obtained by the Law. Let me illustrate. A man of great wealth adopts a strange lad for his son. Remember, he does not owe the lad anything. In due time he appoints the lad heir to his entire fortune. Several years later the old man asks the lad to do something for him. And the young lad does it. Can the lad then go around and say that he deserved the inheritance by his obedience to the old man's request ? How can anybody say that righteousness is obtained by obedience to the Law when the Law was given four hundred hundred and thirty years after God's promise of the blessing? 

One thing is certain, Abraham was never justified by the Law, for the simple reason that the Law was not in his day. If the Law was non-existent how could Abraham obtain righteousness by the Law? Abraham had nothing else to go by but the promise. This promise he believed and that was counted unto him for righteousness. If the father obtained righteousness through faith, the children get it the same way. 

Then Luther applies Paul's words to the doctrinal issues of his own day, in his own inimitable style...

We use the argument of time also. We say our sins were taken away by the death of Christ fifteen hundred years ago, long before there were any religious orders, canons, or rules of penance, merits, etc. What did people do about their sins before these new inventions were hatched up?

Even though Luther's brilliant style is inimitable, I'm going to try and imitate it anyway, with some similar questions about issues in our day.  My intention is not to offend, or even to solve anything, but merely to provoke thought...

How did the church ever evangelize and edify people before we had worship accoutrements like sound design, lighting, and TV screens?

How did people get saved before the 19th century inventions of gospel invitations, altar calls, and "the sinner's prayer"?

How did people ever solve their problems prior to modern psychology and psychiatry?

What was the answer to depression before anti-depressants?

How was church leadership successful before they had business management books and seminars?

How did church planting and growth happen before demographic studies?

Was the Holy Spirit at work before the modern Charismatic movement?

How did Christians prosper before they had prosperity teaching?

How did the early church grow so furiously and "turn the world upside down" when they didn't even have any church buildings?

How did we ever get along without the Book of Church Order and other denominational trappings?

Were women ever blessed and happy before feminism?

Were men ever blessed and happy before football?

Could husbands and wives love each other when marriages were arranged?

How did our country function for several hundred years without a complete separation of church and state?

How were people baptized in God's eyes in the thousand years (at least) prior to the recovery (or beginning) of adult-only immersion in the 16th Century?

How did men become pastors before seminaries existed?

And finally... How did we ever even survive without blogs? :)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

What Martin Luther got right, and one thing he didn't (in his commentary on Galatians 3:10-14)

Maybe you've heard someone say, "Martin Luther got one thing right, and everything else wrong." It's usually said tongue-in-cheek, of course, because it's an overstatement by any standard.  But it's a shorthand, attention-getting way of reminding us that many Protestants who love Luther's teaching about justification by faith alone (the "one thing he got right") do not agree with many other things he believed.

When I read his comments on Galatians 3:10-14, my experience reminded me of that saying, because I really liked what he had to say about justification, but I didn't like most of the other things he had to say, because they were about a particular point of doctrine on which I disagree with him.  Before we get to that one point, however, let's see what both the apostle Paul and the great Reformer "get right" when they tell us how we can "get right" with God...

Paul says in Galatians 3:10, "For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.'”  And Luther comments:

Whoever seeks righteousness by works denies God and makes himself God. He is an Antichrist because he ascribes to his own works the omnipotent capability of conquering sin, death, devil, hell, and the wrath of God. An Antichrist lays claim to the honor of Christ. He is an idolater of himself. The law-righteous person is the worst kind of infidel. Those who intend to obtain righteousness by their own efforts do not say in so many words: "I am God; I am Christ." But it amounts to that. They usurp the divinity and office of Christ. The effect is the same as if they said, "I am Christ; I am a Savior. I save myself and others...."  I cannot tell you in words how criminal it is to seek righteousness before God without faith in Christ, by the works of the Law. It is the abomination standing in the holy place. It deposes the Creator and deifies the creature.

Then Paul goes on to say, "That no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, 'The righteous man shall live by faith.' However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, 'He who practices them shall live by them'” (vv. 11-12).  And Luther comments:

Paul undertakes to explain the difference between the righteousness of the Law and the righteousness of faith. The righteousness of the Law is the fulfillment of the Law according to the passage: "The man that doeth them shall live in them." The righteousness of faith is to believe the Gospel according to the passage: "The just shall live by faith." The Law is a statement of debit, the Gospel a statement of credit. By this distinction Paul explains why charity which is the commandment of the Law cannot justify, because the Law contributes nothing to our justification. Indeed, works do follow after faith, but faith is not therefore a meritorious work. Faith is a gift. The character and limitations of the Law must be rigidly maintained. When we believe in Christ we live by faith. When we believe in the Law we may be active enough but we have no life. The function of the Law is not to give life; the function of the Law is to kill. True, the Law says: "The man that doeth them shall live in them." But where is the person who can do "them," i.e., love God with all his heart, soul, and mind, and his neighbor as himself?

Paul's words climax at the cross, when he says in verses 13-14, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith."  And Luther captures the apostle's meaning well:

Paul does not say that Christ was made a curse for Himself. The accent is on the two words "for us." Christ is personally innocent. Personally, He did not deserve to be hanged for any crime of His own doing. But because Christ took the place of others who were sinners, He was hanged like any other transgressor. The Law of Moses leaves no loopholes. It says that a transgressor should be hanged. Who are the other sinners? We are. The sentence of death and everlasting damnation had long been pronounced over us. But Christ took all our sins and died for them on the Cross. "He was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors." (Isaiah 53:12.)

Those are true and tremendous words from both the apostle and Reformer!  But after that, Luther unfortunately veers away from Paul's intended meaning when he launches into a long discussion of the idea that Jesus actually became a sinner on the cross.  In fact, he goes so far as to say it is good to refer to Christ as "a cursed sinner" because of what happened at Calvary.  "Although this and similar passages may be properly explained by saying that Christ was made a sacrifice for the curse and for sin," Luther writes, "yet in my judgment it is better to leave these passages stand as they read: Christ was made sin itself; Christ was made the curse itself."

In Luther's defense, it seems that he is over-reacting to the "moral influence" theory of the atonement, which was prevalent in his day (and is trending in ours also).  He says at one point, "In separating Christ from us sinners and holding Him up as a holy exemplar, errorists rob us of our best comfort."  I do believe that Luther's teaching here is an over-reaction to that error, however, and it is also an example of his tendency to sometimes over-literalize the text, as he did when forming and defending his confusing "consubstantiation" view of the Lord's Supper.  (He was known to shout "This is my body!" as if raising his voice and pounding the table somehow made Christ's meaning more literal.)

Luther's own comments in defense of his view reveal some of the problems with it.  He quotes Isaiah saying "the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all," but fails to note that this terminology in the Old Testament meant that sin was legally imputed to the sacrifice, which was then treated as if it was guilty.  The animal on the altar did not somehow become evil in itself, nor did Christ as the anti-type. He was regarded and treated as we deserved to be (bearing the punishment for our sins) so we could then be regarded and treated as he deserves to be (declared righteous before God).  And just as we are legally declared righteous without actually being righteous in ourselves, so our Savior was forsaken and punished by God without actually becoming sinful in himself.

When Luther says, "By faith alone can we become righteous, for faith invests us with the sinlessness of Christ," he surely does not think that our sinlessness is ontological (meaning practically in our character and experience).  Therefore it is inconsistent (with his doctrine of justification, in fact) for Luther to believe that Christ's sinfulness was ontological.  In this regard I could also mention another passage that is often construed to teach the wrong idea, 2 Corinthians 5:21:  "He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him."  No Protestant theologian (including Luther) believes that we literally or ontologically become the righteousness of God; rather Paul means that his righteousness has been legally imputed or "reckoned" to us. Likewise, therefore, "he made him to be sin for us" should be understood in a similar way.

Consider for a moment a common illustration of what Christ did for us on the cross, which is a combination of the parable of the forgiving King in Matthew 18 and the fact that terms like redemption and ransom include the idea of a price being paid.  In a court stands a man who through his own foolishness owes a huge amount of money he could never repay, and the Judge, moved only by love and compassion, pays the entire debt from his own considerable wealth. Notice in that illustration the Judge doesn't actually become evil, nor does the criminal actually become good (though gratitude will probably cause him to improve afterwards).  But a legal and covenantal transaction has taken place in which the Judge has sacrificed so that the criminal can have a clean record.  That's what the Scripture means when it says "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all," "having become a curse for us," and "he made him to be sin for us."  Those are figurative expressions describing a profound spiritual reality (much like "This is my body").

How does this deep theological discussion apply to our lives practically?  (After all, these are my "personal devotions" that I'm blogging about...I'd better be getting something edifying out of them!:) Well, as much as I love to read Luther, and as right as he is about many things, it's helpful to be reminded that he can be wrong about other things, and that he (like anyone) should be read with discernment.  Also, knowing that such a great man can be wrong gives me more patience with others who say things I don't agree with, and makes me realize that I can also be wrong (more than I'd like to admit).

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Blessed for Doing Nothing (Martin Luther on Galatians 3:1-9)

As Paul continues his defense of justification by faith alone in the book of Galatians, and Luther continues his commentary on it, they make their case based on two powerful illustrations.

The first one is the experience that the Galatian believers had when they first received the Holy Spirit, along with the miraculous signs that accompanied His work in their lives.  Paul says in verses 1-5, "You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you...?  This is the only thing I want to find out from you:  did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?...   So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?"  Apparently what happened to the Galatians when they received the Spirit was very similar to the experience of Cornelius's household, which is recorded in Acts 10:44-48.

Luther mentions the connection when he is paraphrasing Paul's message to the Galatians:

In your own case, you have not only learned the Law by heart, you have labored with all your might to perform it. You most of all should have received the Holy Ghost by the Law, if that were possible. You cannot show me that this ever happened. But as soon as the Gospel came your way, you received the Holy Ghost by the simple hearing of faith, before you ever had a chance to do a single good deed." Luke verifies this statement of Paul in the Book of Acts: "While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word." (Acts 10:44.) "And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning." (Acts 11:15.)

How was it with Cornelius? Cornelius and his friends whom he had invited over to his house, do nothing but sit and listen. Peter is doing the talking. They just sit and do nothing. The Law is far removed from their thoughts. They burn no sacrifices. They are not at all interested in circumcision. All they do is to sit and listen to Peter. Suddenly the Holy Ghost enters their hearts. His presence is unmistakable, "for they spoke with tongues and magnified God."

Not only did the Galatians (and the first Gentile believers before them) receive the Holy Spirit while they were doing nothing to contribute to that great blessing, but Paul goes on to give a second example, which is Abraham, the father of all the faithful.  He says in verses 6-9, "Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'All the nations will be blessed in you.' So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer."

I have often noticed and remarked on the fact that when Abraham was justified (declared righteous before God), he was doing nothing, and he did nothing to receive that greatest of all blessings.  God simply told him to look at the stars and then promised to make his descendants that numerous, etc.  "Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6).  Abraham didn't do anything good; he didn't even say a prayer; he was simply and passively trusting in the promises of God.  Of course he did good things later, like being willing to sacrifice Isaac, which proved his faith to be genuine and confirmed his justification.  But when he first received it, he was "doing nothing."

There are a number of practical implications for us from these examples, but before I mention some others, I want to let the great Reformer speak to the most important one, which is how we can be assured of our justification, adoption, and future glorification in heaven...

We must learn that forgiveness of sins, Christ, and the Holy Ghost, are freely granted unto us at the preaching of faith, in spite of our sinfulness. We are not to waste time thinking how unworthy we are of the blessings of God. We are to know that it pleased God freely to give us His unspeakable gifts. If He offers His gifts free of charge, why not take them? Why worry about our lack of worthiness? Why not accept gifts with joy and thanksgiving?

What did Jesus say to Martha when she was very "careful and troubled about many things" and could hardly stand to see her sister Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, just listening? "Martha, Martha," Jesus said, "thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful; and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her." A person becomes a Christian not by working, but by hearing. The first step to being a Christian is to hear the Gospel. When a person has accepted the Gospel, let him first give thanks unto God with a glad heart, and then let him get busy on the good works to strive for, works that really please God, and not man-made and self-chosen works.

Learn to understand the constitution of your Christian righteousness. Faith is weak, but it means enough to God that He will not lay sin to our charge. He will not punish nor condemn us for it. He will forgive our sins as though they amount to nothing at all. He will do it not because we are worthy of such mercy. He will do it for Jesus' sake in whom we believe.

We comfort the afflicted sinner in this manner: Brother, you can never be perfect in this life, but you can be holy. He will say: "How can I be holy when I feel my sins?" I answer: You feel sin? That is a good sign. To realize that one is ill is a step, and a very necessary step, toward recovery. "But how will I get rid of my sin?" he will ask. I answer: See the heavenly Physician, Christ, who heals the broken-hearted.

A Christian is beloved of God and a sinner. How can these two contradictions be harmonized: I am a sinner and deserve God's wrath and punishment, and yet the Father loves me? Christ alone can harmonize these contradictions. He is the Mediator.

That is by far the most important application of this passage to our lives, but I thought of a few others that I will add here, as food for thought...

1) The fact that justification and the gift of the Holy Spirit were bestowed on people who were "doing nothing" supports the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation.  Just like Jonah was brought to the end of himself and cried out "Salvation is of the Lord!" (Jonah 2:9), so we must realize that we make no contribution to ours--rather it is all of grace.  Even faith itself is not meritorious in any sense, but is part of the free gift that salvation is repeatedly said to be (John 6:65, Eph. 2:8-9, Phil. 1:29).  In fact, it seems that in Paul's writings especially, justification by faith and not by works is a kind of shorthand for "you didn't do anything to earn it, or even initiate it."

2) This also sheds light on the role of our decisions and responses in conversion.  Often people think that God responds to an act of our will when he saves us (we say "accept Jesus in your heart" or "make a decision for Christ"), or that "the sinner's prayer" or similar physical responses (walking an aisle, getting baptized, etc.) somehow cause God to grant us forgiveness.  But someone who truly believes has already been saved by God before they make sincere confession or repentance or any other commitment to Christ.  It is good to encourage people to confess Christ as Lord, be baptized, join a church, etc...those responses to God's grace are in the Bible.  But we must always make sure they don't think they are somehow earning God's favor or otherwise cutting a deal with him.  (For more about this, see my posts about evangelism here and here.)

3) Finally, the Galatians must have received the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit spontaneously and unexpectedly, while they were "doing nothing," because the point of the passage doesn't make sense any other way.  That calls into question a lot of the so-called miraculous experiences that are claimed today, because people often have to be taught or otherwise prepared to receive them.  Take speaking in tongues, for example, since that was probably a part of the Galatians' Holy Spirit experience:  In most cases today, that gift doesn't just come upon people as they are listening to the gospel proclaimed--they have to be coached, watch others do it, or at least hear about it before they start practicing it.  Not to mention the many other issues like the biblical gift being real human languages, the historical purpose of the sign to usher in the New Covenant age of the Gentiles, and the absence of the required interpretation in much of its practice today.

More on that some other time perhaps.  But for now, join me in thanking God that his grace is so great and free that we can actually be blessed for doing nothing!

Monday, August 21, 2017

"I've got good news and bad news..." (Luther's commentary on Galatians 2:20-21)

In a wonderful and creative way, Paul summarizes his doctrine of justification by faith alone in a positive way in verse 20, and then in the (often overlooked) next verse he warns us sternly about the consequences of neglecting or perverting the free grace of Christ. Luther's comments on the passage are almost as powerful as the passage itself.

The good news

Paul writes, "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me."

Luther sums up the basic meaning of the verse with his usual personal, practical, and pastoral concern:

Paul explains what constitutes true Christian righteousness. True Christian righteousness is the righteousness of Christ who lives in us. We must look away from our own person. Christ and my conscience must become one, so that I can see nothing else but Christ crucified and raised from the dead for me. If I keep on looking at myself, I am gone. If we lose sight of Christ and begin to consider our past, we simply go to pieces. We must turn our eyes to the brazen serpent, Christ crucified, and believe with all our heart that He is our righteousness and our life. For Christ, on whom our eyes are fixed, in whom we live, who lives in us, is Lord over Law, sin, death, and all evil....

Since Christ is now living in me, He abolishes the Law, condemns sin, and destroys death in me. These foes vanish in His presence. Christ abiding in me drives out every evil. This union with Christ delivers me from the demands of the Law, and separates me from my sinful self. As long as I abide in Christ, nothing can hurt me. Christ domiciling in me, the old Adam has to stay outside and remain subject to the Law. Think what grace, righteousness, life, peace, and salvation there is in me, thanks to that inseparable conjunction between Christ and me through faith!

When I got to the last part of the verse in Luther's commentary, I knew he would probably wax eloquent on the wonderful words there about Christ's love and sacrifice.  I looked forward to seeing how he would "speak in thunderbolts," as Spurgeon said about him.  But little did I know that Luther himself would describe Paul's words in that way...

The words, "The Son of God who loved me, and gave Himself for me," are so many thunderclaps and lightning bolts of protest from heaven against the righteousness of the Law. The wickedness, error, darkness, ignorance in my mind and my will were so great, that it was quite impossible for me to be saved by any other means than by the inestimable price of Christ's death.

And then Luther throws out a few of his own thunderbolts when he comments on the words "for me"...

Who is this "me"? I, wretched and damnable sinner, dearly beloved of the Son of God. If I could by work or merit love the Son of God and come to Him, why should He have sacrificed Himself for me?....Read the words "me" and "for me" with great emphasis. Print this "me" with capital letters in your heart, and do not ever doubt that you belong to the number of those who are meant by this "me." Christ did not only love Peter and Paul. The same love He felt for them He feels for us. If we cannot deny that we are sinners, we cannot deny that Christ died for our sins.

The bad news

The passage doesn't end there, however, as Paul goes on to say in verse 21, "I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”  Here is an implicit warning that becomes much more explicit later in the book (3:4, 4:11, 5:2-4):  if we add anything to faith in Christ alone, or trust in anything else in addition to Him, we will not be saved.  (And remember, he's talking to very religious people who call themselves Christians.)

On that topic, Luther has a few more thunderbolts to hit us with...

We despise the grace of God when we observe the Law for the purpose of being justified. The Law is good, holy, and profitable, but it does not justify. To keep the Law in order to be justified means to reject grace, to deny Christ, to despise His sacrifice, and to be lost.

If my salvation was so difficult to accomplish that it necessitated the death of Christ, then all my works, all the righteousness of the Law, are good for nothing. How can I buy for a penny what cost a million dollars? The Law is a penny's worth when you compare it with Christ. Should I be so stupid as to reject the righteousness of Christ which cost me nothing, and slave like a fool to achieve the righteousness of the Law?

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The biggest problem for Catholics (and many Protestants too) (Martin Luther on Galatians 2:16-19)

I'll make less comments myself in this post, and mostly let Luther speak, because this was a "mountain top" passage for him in his fight against the error of his day (which sadly continues down to the present).  And I must allow him to speak not only generally to the false teaching of justification by faith and works, but also to the specific religious system that was teaching it.  And unfortunately this still needs to be said in our current age, because the Roman Catholic Church condemned the Pauline and Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone at the Council of Trent in the 16th Century, and has never changed its position since then.

In his commentary on Galatians Luther had no choice but to apply Paul's teaching to the Catholic Church, because it was dominating the religious and cultural landscape of his day, and because it had recently condemned him as a heretic, placing his life in serious danger.  But as you read the quotes, notice how he also applies the truth of the passage in a way that all souls, whether Catholic or Protestant, ancient or modern, can benefit from it.  In our personal lives we all tend to make the mistakes that have been made institutionally, like missing the distinction between faith and works, confusing justification and sanctification, and allowing our sins and failures to steal our joy or immobilize us when we should be walking in the freedom and power of God's grace.

So let's listen to some of the verbal "thunderbolts" of the great Reformer on the topic that many say he understood better than any other (justification by faith alone).  In this first quote he answers interesting questions like "Were there no true believers in the Medieval church?" and "Why did it fall into such disrepair?"  These comments are on verse 16, "For by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified"...

The papists do not believe this. They say, "A person who performs this good deed or that, deserves the forgiveness of his sins. A person who joins this or that holy order, has the promise of everlasting life." To me it is a miracle that the Church, so long surrounded surrounded by vicious sects, has been able to survive at all. God must have been able to call a few who in their failure to discover any good in themselves to cite against the wrath and judgment of God, simply took to the suffering and death of Christ, and were saved by this simple faith. Nevertheless God has punished the contempt of the Gospel and of Christ on the part of the papists, by turning them over to a reprobate state of mind in which they reject the Gospel, and receive with gusto the abominable rules, ordinances, and traditions of men in preference to the Word of God, until they went so far as to forbid marriage. God punished them justly, because they blasphemed the only Son of God.

Soon after Luther gets more personal and universal in his application:

The conscience knows how impossible it is for a person to fulfill the Law. Why, the Law makes trouble even for those who have the Holy Spirit. What will not the Law do in the case of the wicked who do not even have the Holy Spirit? The Law requires perfect obedience. It condemns all do not accomplish the will of God. But show me a person who is able to render perfect obedience. The Law cannot justify. It can only condemn according to the passage: "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them."

And then he combines his theological criticism of Catholicism with his pastoral concerns for the needs of people, and provides this extended discussion that includes a practical example of how comfort is given to someone facing death (which applies to all of us, of course)...

By the grace of God we know that we are justified through faith in Christ alone. We do not mingle law and grace, faith and works. We keep them far apart. Let every true Christian mark the distinction between law and grace, and mark it well. 

We must not drag good works into the article of justification as the monks do who maintain that not only good works, but also the punishment which evildoers suffer for their wicked deeds, deserve everlasting life. When a criminal is brought to the place of execution, the monks try to comfort him in this manner: "You want to die willingly and patiently, and then you will merit remission of your sins and eternal life." What cruelty is this, that a wretched thief, murderer, robber should be so miserably misguided in his extreme distress, that at the very point of death he should be denied the sweet promises of Christ, and directed to hope for pardon of his sins in the willingness and patience with which he is about to suffer death for his crimes? The monks are showing him the paved way to hell. 

These hypocrites do not know the first thing about grace, the Gospel, or Christ. They retain the appearance and the name of the Gospel and of Christ for a decoy only. In their confessional writings faith or the merit of Christ are never mentioned. In their writings they play up the merits of man, as can readily be seen from the following form of absolution used among the monks. 

"God forgive thee, brother. The merit of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the blessed Saint Mary, always a virgin, and of all the saints; the merit of thy order, the strictness of thy religion, the humility of thy profession, the contrition of thy heart, the good works thou hast done and shalt do for the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, be available unto thee for the remission of thy sins, the increase of thy worth and grace, and the reward of everlasting life. Amen." 

True, the merit of Christ is mentioned in this formula of absolution. But if you look closer you will notice that Christ's merit is belittled, while monkish merits are aggrandized. They confess Christ with their lips, and at the same time deny His power to save. I myself was at one time entangled in this error. I thought Christ was a judge and had to be pacified by a strict adherence to the rules of my order. But now I give thanks unto God, the Father of all mercies, who has called me out of darkness into the light of His glorious Gospel, and has granted unto me the saving knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord. 

We conclude with Paul, that we are justified by faith in Christ, without the Law. Once a person has been justified by Christ, he will not be unproductive of good, but as a good tree he will bring forth good fruit. A believer has the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit will not permit a person to remain idle, but will put him to work and stir him up to the love of God, to patient suffering in affliction, to prayer, thanksgiving, to the habit of charity towards all men.

Notice Luther's emphasis in the last paragraph on the importance of good works in the life of the Christian, and even their role in proving the genuineness of faith.  (As Luther was known to say, "Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone.")  This and the many other similar references in his Galatians commentary put the lie to the idea that he had too little concern for obedience to the law of God.  No, he just wanted our good works to be put in their proper place, as an effect of our justification rather than a cause for it.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Paul rebukes Peter (and us) (Luther's commentary on Galatians 2:11-15)

In my reading of Galatians and Martin Luther's commentary on it, I've come to the famous passage where the apostle Paul rebukes the apostle Peter.  This passage complements the one I talked about in my last post, because that one was about the importance of reputation and this one is about someone whose reputation was too important to him.  It also sheds light on the overall theme of the book and provides some helpful insight into the nature of true faith and conversion.

You might have heard Peter referred to as "the disciple with the foot-shaped mouth" because of how he was always saying ill-advised things in an impulsive manner and often had to be rebuked by Christ.  Well, here he gets in trouble for doing something else with his mouth, or rather what he was not doing with it.  "For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision" (v. 12).  Luther explains why Paul had to rebuke him for this:

To live as a Jew is nothing bad. To eat or not to eat pork, what difference does it make? But to play the Jew, and for conscience' sake to abstain from certain meats, is a denial of Christ. When Paul saw that Peter's attitude tended to this, he withstood Peter and said to him: "You know that the observance of the law is not needed unto righteousness. You know that we are justified by faith in Christ. You know that we may eat all kinds of meats. Yet by your example you obligate the Gentiles to forsake Christ, and to return to the Law. You give them reason to think that faith is not sufficient unto salvation."  Peter did not say so, but his example said quite plainly that the observance of the Law must be added to faith in Christ, if men are to be saved. From Peter's example the Gentiles could not help but draw the conclusion that the Law was necessary unto salvation. If this error had been permitted to pass unchallenged, Christ would have lost out altogether. The controversy involved the preservation of pure doctrine. In such a controversy Paul did not mind if anybody took offense.

Like I talked about in my last post, Paul didn't care about his reputation unless the ministry of the gospel was at stake.  But Peter, on the other hand, cared too much about his reputation.  That was clearly the source of this problem.  He didn't want the influential Jews to think badly of him, even though he knew it was okay to eat those foods with the Gentiles, and knew he should be standing up for their liberty in Christ.

Fear of man is one of the most subtle but prevalent sins we commit, and it can be really dangerous to the souls of others (as it was with Peter) and to our own souls as well.  At the time of my reading and writing about this, I saw two illustrations of this problem in my own life.  The first was that I heard about someone who thinks very badly of me, and though I knew they misunderstood many things, it still bothered me way too much.  It should be enough to know that God understands and is pleased with me, but my heart places too much stock in others' opinions.

The second illustration was considerably lighter, but still enlightening:  I had a dream that the famous quarterback Tom Brady was hanging out with me one day (I have no idea why--I'm not really a fan of his), and I realized after I woke up how happy and proud I'd been that a famous person would be my friend, and how I'd wanted everyone to see that he was.  The amount of satisfaction I was taking from this in the dream could not have been pleasing to a God who is "no respecter of persons," and tells us not to be either.  So even though it was just a dream, I confessed the idolatry in my heart to the Lord, and asked him to transform it so that my happiness would come from knowing Him and not from the esteem of man.

The way this relates to the overall theme of Galatians (and why Paul goes to to explain it in the next passage), is that a characteristic of true faith is not relying on anything other than Christ for our salvation.  And a big part of the faith journey for God's people is that He is faithful to discipline us by taking away the other things that we might rely on (like our reputation, for example).  Notice how Luther's description of true conversion contains that element of "coming to the end of yourself":

Having been humbled by the Law, and having been brought to a right estimate of himself, a man will repent. He finds out that he is so depraved, that no strength, no works, no merits of his own will ever deliver him from his guilt. He will then understand the meaning of Paul's words: "I am sold under sin"; and "they are all under sin." At this state a person begins to lament: "Who is going to help me?" In due time comes the Word of the Gospel, and says: "Son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Believe in Jesus Christ who was crucified for your sins. Remember, your sins have been imposed upon Christ." In this way are we delivered from sin. In this way are we justified and made heirs of everlasting life.

I am actually growing more and more thankful that by God's grace (and loving discipline) in my own life, I can no longer rely in any way on things like having a solid reputation or the esteem of others, being a "good guy," serving the Lord in full-time ministry, or even being a successful husband and father.  In ways I have never experienced before, Jesus Christ is now becoming my only hope, my only righteousness, and my only audience.

How about you?  Is reputation too important to you, that if it would go away, so would your assurance of God's love?  Or is it financial security, or relationships, or your church involvement, or a particular doctrinal understanding that makes you think, "If anyone is a Christian, it must be me, because..."   Do you find yourself frustrated with others for their sins and weaknesses, because deep in your heart you think you are somehow better than they are?  Do you find it hard to forgive and show grace, because you think your sins are not really as bad as theirs?

If any of that might be true of you, as it is of me, I encourage you to read Galatians 2:16-21 (and Luther's commentary on it) sometime in the next few days, and then take a look at my next blog post about it (comments welcomed!).