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Thursday, December 28, 2017

Blessed to be a blessing (Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians 6:6-10)

We should be a blessing financially to those who've blessed us spiritually, and doing so is actually good for us!  (And not doing it is bad for us.)  That's the basic point of Paul's words in Galatians 6:6-10...

"Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.  Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.  For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.  And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.  So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith."

Martin Luther begins his commentary on these verses with some personal words from his own experience...

Now the Apostle also addresses the hearers of the Word requesting them to bestow "all good things" upon those who have taught them the Gospel. I have often wondered why all the apostles reiterated this request with such embarrassing frequency. In the papacy I saw the people give generously for the erection and maintenance of luxurious church buildings and for the sustenance of men appointed to the idolatrous service of Rome. I saw bishops and priests grow rich until they possessed the choicest real estate. I thought then that Paul's admonitions were overdone. I thought he should have requested the people to curtail their contributions. I saw how the generosity of the people of the Church was encouraging covetousness on the part of the clergy. I know better now....

We have come to understand why it is so necessary to repeat the admonition of this verse. When Satan cannot suppress the preaching of the Gospel by force he tries to accomplish his purpose by striking the ministers of the Gospel with poverty. He curtails their income to such an extent that they are forced out of the ministry because they cannot live by the Gospel. Without ministers to proclaim the Word of God the people go wild like savage beasts. Paul's admonition that the hearers of the Gospel share all good things with their pastors and teachers is certainly in order. To the Corinthians he wrote: "If we have sown unto you spiritual things is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?" (I Cor. 9:11.)

Having been a pastor for over 20 years, and now a full-time Christian writer/editor who is seeking support from others on Patreon, I understand Luther's reticence to even talk about money, let alone ask for it.  But the Lord talks about it a lot in the Bible, including two whole chapters about donations to the suffering believers in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 8-9).  There is a great need to support gifted people who devote their lives to "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" by doing work that pays far less than the salaries in the secular business world.  Pastors, missionaries, and others who serve the Lord in non-profit endeavors simply could not do the work God has called them to (or do it well, at least) unless others who are blessed financially determine to bless them in that way.  Luther sums this up well...

I must say I do not find much pleasure in explaining these verses. I am made to appear as if I am speaking for my own benefit. If a minister preaches on money he is likely to be accused of covetousness. Still people must be told these things that they may know their duty. 

Paul and Luther go on to "up the stakes," so to speak, by reminding us what Jesus taught repeatedly, that what we do with our money is actually an indication of our spiritual state before God (see Matt. 6:19-24 and 25:14-30).  Paul writes in verse 8, "For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life."  And Luther comments:

Though this support is something physical the Apostle does not hesitate to call it sowing to the Spirit. When people scrape up everything they can lay their hands on and keep everything for themselves the Apostle calls it a sowing to the flesh. He pronounces those who sow to the Spirit blessed for this life and the life to come, while those who sow to the flesh are accursed now and forever.

Finally, Paul adds that we should "not grow weary of doing good" and "not give up" in our support of those who have been a spiritual blessing to us (v. 9).  Luther suggests that one reason for the temptation to grow weary or give up may be because we don't always see good fruit come out of our giving, and sometimes we even see bad fruit.  He must have witnessed some ingratitude among those who "lived by the gospel," so he zeroes in on that.  But his words have a broader application to any of us who might be disappointed in any way by the seemingly negligible effects of our charitable giving...

It is easy enough to do good once or twice, but to keep on doing good without getting disgusted with the ingratitude of those whom we have benefited, that is not so easy. Therefore the Apostle does not only admonish us to do good, but to do good untiringly. For our encouragement he adds the promise: "For in due season we shall reap, if we faint not." "Wait for the harvest and then you will reap the reward of your sowing to the Spirit. Think of that when you do good and the ingratitude of men [or other disappointments] will not stop you from doing good."

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Luther on restoring the fallen (from his commentary on Galatians 6:1-5)

"When someone falls down, do you put out your hand to help them, or do you kick dirt in their face?"

I heard a preacher say that recently, and it captures well the underlying concern in the apostle Paul's words in Galatians 6:1-5, as well as Martin Luther's comments on it.  I've come to this great passage in my devotional reading of both Galatians and Luther's commentary, and I'm continuing to do this "devotional blogging" until I reach the end of the book (which won't be very long now).

The passage says, "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.  Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.  For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.  But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor.  For each will have to bear his own load."

The great Reformer obviously had observed that loving restoration is the opposite of what often happens when someone has fallen into sin.  He writes,

Let the ministers of the Gospel learn from Paul how to deal with those who have sinned. "Brethren," he says, "if any man be overtaken with a fault, do not aggravate his grief, do not scold him, do not condemn him, but lift him up and gently restore his faith. If you see a brother despondent over a sin he has committed, run up to him, reach out your hand to him, comfort him with the Gospel and embrace him like a mother. When you meet a willful sinner who does not care, go after him and rebuke him sharply." But this is not the treatment for one who has been overtaken by a sin and is sorry. He must be dealt with in the spirit of meekness and not in the spirit of severity. A repentant sinner is not to be given gall and vinegar to drink.

Those who fail to do so [bear the burdens of the fallen] expose their lack of understanding of the law of Christ. Love, according to Paul, "believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things." This commandment is not meant for those who deny Christ; neither is it meant for those who continue to live in sin. Only those who are willing to hear the Word of God and then inadvertently fall into sin to their own great sorrow and regret, carry the burdens which the Apostle encourages us to bear. Let us not be hard on them. If Christ did not punish them, what right have we to do it?

Paul and Luther then go on talk about the primary reason why people kick dirt in the faces of the fallen rather than helping them up, which is pride.  They think of themselves higher than they ought to think (v. 3, see also Rom. 12:3), and compare themselves to those who have failed with thoughts like "I would never do that" or "he made his bed, now he'll have to lie in it."  But Paul challenges us to examine our own works, which would surely lead us to recognize that we ourselves are no better than anyone else (because we know more about our own secret sins than we do about those of others).  This calls to mind some wise words from a pastor who reached out to me after some sin had been exposed in my life.  I said to him on a text, "Thanks for your phone takes courage and compassion to care for the lepers."  And he responded, "We're all lepers, Dave, we just don't realize it sometimes."

Luther then goes even deeper by suggesting that a particular symptom of spiritual pride, which must be healed in us before we can be healers to others, is a desire for the approval of people, or "the fear of man" as the Scripture calls it.  His words about this are helpful not just for pastors (whom he addresses), but for anyone who wants to help others up rather than kick dirt in their faces...

"Let a minister be faithful in his office," is the apostolic injunction. "Let him not seek his own glory or look for praise. Let him desire to do good work and to preach the Gospel in all its purity. Whether an ungrateful world appreciates his efforts is to give him no concern because, after all, he is in the ministry not for his own glory but for the glory of Christ." A faithful minister cares little what people think of him, as long as his conscience approves of him. The approval of his own good conscience is the best praise a minister can have. To know that we have taught the Word of God and administered the sacraments rightly is to have a glory that cannot be taken away.

[About verse 6, "each will have to bear his own load"]  That means: For anybody to covet praise is foolish because the praise of men will be of no help to you in the hour of death. Before the judgment throne of Christ everybody will have to bear his own burden. As it is the praise of men stops when we die. Before the eternal Judge it is not praise that counts but your own conscience.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone (Luther's commentary on Galatians 5:16-26)

The quote in the title above is often attributed to Luther. Those particular words are not in the commentary section I read, but the basic idea is very prominent. Luther again shows how balanced and pastoral he is in his thoughts on a passage that Paul begins (and summarizes) by saying, "For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (vv. 13-14).

Luther captures the point of the passage (and the saying above) in the following quotes...

Christians are glad to hear and obey this teaching of love. When others hear about this Christian liberty of ours they at once infer, "If I am free, I may do what I like. If salvation is not a matter of doing why should we do anything for the poor?" In this crude manner they turn the liberty of the spirit into wantonness and licentiousness. We want them to know, however, that if they use their lives and possessions after their own pleasure, if they do not help the poor, if they cheat their fellow-men in business and snatch and scrape by hook and by crook everything they can lay their hands on, we want to tell them that they are not free, no matter how much they think they are, but they are the dirty slaves of the devil, and are seven times worse than they ever were as the slaves of the Pope.

The Apostle exhorts all Christians to practice good works after they have embraced the pure doctrine of faith, because even though they have been justified they still have the old flesh to refrain them from doing good. Therefore it becomes necessary that sincere preachers cultivate the doctrine of good works as diligently as the doctrine of faith, for Satan is a deadly enemy of both. Nevertheless faith must come first because without faith it is impossible to know what a God-pleasing deed is.

So the great Reformer (like the great Apostle before him) knows that it is important to emphasize the role of good works (especially love) as an evidence of true faith.  But in his later comments we see Luther's pastoral and practical concern that this emphasis can sometimes cause true believers to fear for their souls because our works never seem to be good enough and our sinful flesh never seems to go away.  (To understand what the "flesh" is according to Scripture, see this post.)  Luther says,

Do not despair if you feel the flesh battling against the Spirit or if you cannot make it behave. For you to follow the guidance of the Spirit in all things without interference on the part of the flesh is impossible. You are doing all you can if you resist the flesh and do not fulfill its demands. 

When I was a monk I thought I was lost forever whenever I felt an evil emotion, carnal lust, wrath, hatred, or envy. I tried to quiet my conscience in many ways, but it did not work, because lust would always come back and give me no rest. I told myself: "You have permitted this and that sin, envy, impatience, and the like. Your joining this holy order has been in vain, and all your good works are good for nothing." If at that time I had understood this passage, "The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh," I could have spared myself many a day of self- torment. I would have said to myself: "Martin, you will never be without sin, for you have flesh. Despair not, but resist the flesh." 

I remember how Doctor Staupitz used to say to me: "I have promised God a thousand times that I would become a better man, but I never kept my promise. From now on I am not going to make any more vows. Experience has taught me that I cannot keep them. Unless God is merciful to me for Christ's sake and grants unto me a blessed departure, I shall not be able to stand before Him." His was a God-pleasing despair. No true believer trusts in his own righteousness, but says with David, "Enter not into judgment with thy servant; for in thy sight shall no man living be justified." (Ps. 143:2) Again, "If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?" (Ps. 130:3.) 

No man is to despair of salvation just because he is aware of the lust of the flesh. Let him be aware of it so long as he does not yield to it. The passion of lust, wrath, and other vices may shake him, but they are not to get him down. Sin may assail him, but he is not to welcome it. Yes, the better Christian a man is, the more he will experience the heat of the conflict. This explains the many expressions of regret in the Psalms and in the entire Bible. Everybody is to determine his peculiar weakness and guard against it. Watch and wrestle in spirit against your weakness. Even if you cannot completely overcome it, at least you ought to fight against it.

According to this description a saint is not one who is made of wood and never feels any lusts or desires of the flesh. A true saint confesses his righteousness and prays that his sins may be forgiven.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Preachers who should be castrated (Galatians 5:7-12 and Luther's comments on it)

The people who misled the Galatians in the first century were saying that they needed to be circumcised in order to be justified before God (i.e forgiven for their sins).  Paul said he'd like to see those teachers do more than just cut off their foreskin, but go farther and take the whole thing off!  Galatians 5:7-12 is the passage where he says this:

"You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!"

Why would Paul use such harsh language (clearly a form of "cursing") in regard to what the Galatians were being taught?  It's because the stakes were so high--namely, the eternal fate and spiritual success of those who were being misled.  (See this post for another example of such cursing earlier in the book.)

Martin Luther, in his commentary on the passage, provides some justifications for Paul's use of profanity (and his own, no doubt).  First of all, he asserts that Satan himself is behind all such false teaching, and shares the apostle's compassion for poor sinners in need of forgiveness and hope...

The devil is a cunning persuader. He knows how to enlarge the smallest sin into a mountain until we think we have committed the worst crime ever committed on earth. Such stricken consciences must be comforted and set straight as Paul corrected the Galatians by showing them that their opinion is not of Christ because it runs counter to the Gospel, which describes Christ as a meek and merciful Savior. 

Satan will circumvent the Gospel and explain Christ in this his own diabolical way: "Indeed Christ is meek, gentle, and merciful, but only to those who are holy and righteous. If you are a sinner you stand no chance. Did not Christ say that unbelievers are already damned? And did not Christ perform many good deeds, and suffer many evils patiently, bidding us to follow His example? You do not mean to say that your life is in accord with Christ's precepts or example? You are a sinner. You are no good at all." 

Satan is to be answered in this way: The Scriptures present Christ in a twofold aspect. First, as a gift. "He of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification and redemption." (I Cor. 1:30.) Hence my many and grievous sins are nullified if I believe in Him. Secondly, the Scriptures present Christ for our example. As an exemplar He is to be placed before me only at certain times. In times of joy and gladness that l may have Him as a mirror to reflect upon my shortcomings. But in the day of trouble I will have Christ only as a gift. I will not listen to anything else, except that Christ died for my sins.

Second, Paul and Luther both recognize that the persecution they faced (which would certainly not be mitigated by the language they used:), is a sign that they were angering Satan and thus "on the right track"...

Saint Bernard observed that the Church is in best shape when Satan assaults it on every side by trickery and violence; and in worst shape when it is at peace. In support of his statement he quotes the passage from the song of Hezekiah: "Behold, for peace I had great bitterness." Paul looks with suspicion upon any doctrine that does not provoke antagonism. 

Persecution always follows on the heels of the Word of God as the Psalmist experienced. "I believe, therefore have I spoken: I was greatly afflicted." (Ps. 116:10.) The Christians are accused and slandered without mercy. Murderers and thieves receive better treatment than Christians. The world regards true Christians as the worst offenders, for whom no punishment can be too severe. The world hates the Christians with amazing brutality, and without compunction commits them to the most shameful death, congratulating itself that it has rendered God and the cause of peace a distinct service by ridding the world of the undesired presence of these Christians. We are not to let such treatment cause us to falter in our adherence to Christ. As long as we experience such persecutions we know all is well with the Gospel.

And finally, Paul and Luther were so strong in their language because they believed the truth of the Word of God itself was being intentionally twisted and corrupted, and if unchecked that would lead to the destruction of the very foundations of the Christian faith...

This goes to show again how much importance Paul attached to the least points of Christian doctrine, that he dared to curse the false apostles, evidently men of great popularity and influence. What right, then, have we to make little of doctrine? No matter how nonessential a point of doctrine may seem, if slighted it may prove the gradual disintegration of the truths of our salvation. 

Let us do everything to advance the glory and authority of God's Word. Every tittle of it is greater than heaven and earth. Christian charity and unity have nothing to do with the Word of God. We are bold to curse and condemn all men who in the least point corrupt the Word of God, "for a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump." 

Paul does right to curse these troublers of the Galatians, wishing that they were cut off and rooted out of the Church of God and that their doctrine might perish forever. Such cursing is the gift of the Holy Ghost. Thus Peter cursed Simon the sorcerer, "Thy money perish with thee." Many instances of this holy cursing are recorded in the sacred Scriptures, especially in the Psalms, e.g., "Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell." (Ps. 55:15.)

Luther's comments about the importance of "the least points of Christian doctrine" might be taken to mean that we should curse other teachers who disagree on more minor matters like the mode and subjects of baptism, the Five Points of Calvinism, and worship styles.  And perhaps Luther did go too far in that regard sometimes, like when he condemned the other Reformers for their different views of the elements in the Lord's Supper.  But I think we should hear his words in the context of the Galatian heresy, which was about salvation and justification rather than other less important doctrines, and take them as a challenge to not tolerate even the smallest deviation from biblical truth in those areas. 

Augustine was a hero of Luther's, and the church father was known to say, "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity."  So Paul's cursing (and Luther's), was an attempt to promote unity on the most essential issue of how we can be right with God, and they believed it was charitable (or loving) because they were trying to wake people up to the danger of getting that issue wrong.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Reformation 500 - Six Days of Luther, Day 6 (from his commentary on Galatians 5:6)

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.  Exactly 500 years later, I have been celebrating the great movement of God that followed his initial protest by posting his comments in full on this great passage in Galatians 5:1-6, six posts in a row.  This will be the last entry where I'll post his comments in full, but the celebration will continue every week or so on this blog, as I continue to read and excerpt and comment on Luther's teaching through the rest of the book of Galatians.

Since his comments on Galatians 5:6 are relatively short, at the end of them I will provide a list to my former posts about these two world-changing books (Galatians and Luther's commentary on it)... Perhaps you might want to click on one or a few and discover or review them before we move on.

Here's what the great Reformer had to say about verse 6 of Galatians 5...

VERSE 6. For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by love. 

Faith must of course be sincere. It must be a faith that performs good works through love. If faith lacks love it is not true faith. Thus the Apostle bars the way of hypocrites to the kingdom of Christ on all sides. He declares on the one hand, "In Christ Jesus circumcision availeth nothing," i.e., works avail nothing, but faith alone, and that without any merit whatever, avails before God. On the other hand, the Apostle declares that without fruits faith serves no purpose. To think, "If faith justifies without works, let us work nothing," is to despise the grace of God. Idle faith is not justifying faith. In this terse manner Paul presents the whole life of a Christian. Inwardly it consists in faith towards God, outwardly in love towards our fellow-men.

And here are the titles and links for my previous posts on Galatians and Luther, in case you'd like to check out any of them...

Martin Luther: "Preach the Gospel to Yourself" (from his commentary on Galatians 1:1-4)

DAMN those gospel preachers! (Luther on Galatians 1:6-9)

Paul and Luther defended themselves...Should you? (Luther on Galatians 1:11-24)

How important is your reputation? (Luther's comments on Galatians 2:1-10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was Luther an Antinomian? (from his commentary on Galatians 4:21-31)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Reformation 500 - Six Days of Luther, Day 5 (from his commentary on Galatians 5:5)

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.  Exactly 500 years later, I am celebrating the great movement of God that followed his initial protest by posting his comments in full on this great passage in Galatians 5:1-6, six posts in a row.  Here's what he had to say about verse 5...

VERSE 6. For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. 

Paul concludes the whole matter with the above statement. "You want to be justified by the Law, by circumcision, and by works. We cannot see it. To be justified by such means would make Christ of no value to us. We would be obliged to perform the whole law. We rather through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness." The Apostle is not satisfied to say "justified by faith." He adds hope to faith. 

Holy Writ speaks of hope in two ways: as the object of the emotion, and hope as the emotion itself. In the first chapter of the Epistle to the Colossians we have an instance of its first use: "For the hope which is laid up for you in heaven," i.e., the thing hoped for. In the sense of emotion we quote the passage from the eighth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans: "For we are saved by hope." As Paul uses the term "hope" here in writing to the Galatians, we may take it in either of its two meanings. We may understand Paul to say, "We wait in spirit, through faith, for the righteousness that we hope for, which in due time will be revealed to us." Or we may understand Paul to say: "We wait in Spirit, by faith for righteousness with great hope and desire." True, we are righteous, but our righteousness is not yet revealed; as long as we live here sin stays with us, not to forget the law in our members striving against the law of our mind. When sin rages in our body and we through the Spirit wrestle against it, then we have cause for hope. We are not yet perfectly righteous. Perfect righteousness is still to be attained. Hence we hope for it. 

This is sweet comfort for us. And we are to make use of it in comforting the afflicted. We are to say to them: "Brother, you would like to feel God's favor as you feel your sin. But you are asking too much. Your righteousness rests on something much better than feelings. Wait and hope until it will be revealed to you in the Lord's own time. Don't go by your feelings, but go by the doctrine of faith, which pledges Christ to you."

This passage contains excellent doctrine and much comfort. It declares that we are justified not by works, sacrifices, or ceremonies, but by Christ alone. The world may judge certain things to be ever so good; without Christ they are all wrong. Circumcision and the law and good works are carnal. "We," says Paul, "are above such things. We possess Christ by faith and in the midst of our afflictions we hopefully wait for the consummation of our righteousness." You may say, "The trouble is I don't feel as if I am righteous." You must not feel, but believe. Unless you believe that you are righteous, you do Christ a great wrong, for He has cleansed you by the washing of regeneration, He died for you so that through Him you may obtain righteousness and everlasting life.

Luther, Martin. Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (p. 146). Kindle Edition. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Reformation 500 - Six Days of Luther, Day 4 (from his commentary on Galatians 5:4)

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.  Exactly 500 years later, I am celebrating the great movement of God that followed his initial protest by posting his comments in full on this great passage in Galatians 5:1-6, six posts in a row.  Here's what he had to say about verse 4...

"Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace." 

Paul in this verse discloses that he is not speaking so much of circumcision as the trust which men repose in the outward act. We can hear him say: "I do not condemn the Law in itself; what I condemn is that men seek to be justified by the Law, as if Christ were still to come, or as if He alone were unable to justify sinners. It is this that I condemn, because it makes Christ of no effect. It makes you void of Christ so that Christ is not in you, nor can you be partakers of the knowledge, the spirit, the fellowship, the liberty, the life, or the achievements of Christ. You are completely separated from Him, so much so that He has nothing to do with you any more, or for that matter you with Him." Can anything worse be said against the Law? If you think Christ and the Law can dwell together in your heart, you may be sure that Christ dwells not in your heart. For if Christ is in your heart He neither condemns you, nor does He ever bid you to trust in your own good works. If you know Christ at all, you know that good works do not serve unto righteousness, nor evil works unto condemnation. I do not want to withhold from good works their due praise, nor do I wish to encourage evil works. But when it comes to justification, I say, we must concentrate upon Christ alone, or else we make Him non-effective .You must choose between Christ and the righteousness of the Law. If you choose Christ you are righteous before God. If you stick to the Law, Christ is of no use to you. 

"Ye are fallen from grace." That means you are no longer in the kingdom or condition of grace. When a person on board ship falls into the sea and is drowned it makes no difference from which end or side of the ship he falls into the water. Those who fall from grace perish no matter how they go about it. Those who seek to be justified by the Law are fallen from grace and are in grave danger of eternal death. If this holds true in the case of those who seek to be justified by the moral Law, what will become of those, I should like to know, who endeavor to be justified by their own regulations and vows? They will fall to the very bottom of hell. "Oh, no," they say, "we will fly straight into heaven. If you live according to the rules of Saint Francis, Saint Dominick, Saint Benedict, you will obtain the peace and mercy of God. If you perform the vows of chastity, obedience, etc., you will be rewarded with everlasting life." Let these playthings of the devil go to the place where they came from and listen to what Paul has to say in this verse in accordance with Christ's own teaching: "He that believeth in the Son of God, hath everlasting life; but he that believeth not in the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth in him." 

The words, "Ye are fallen from grace," must not be taken lightly. They are important. To fall from grace means to lose the atonement, the forgiveness of sins, the righteousness, liberty, and life which Jesus has merited for us by His death and resurrection. To lose the grace of God means to gain the wrath and judgment of God, death, the bondage of the devil, and everlasting condemnation.

Luther, Martin. Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (pp. 143-144). Kindle Edition.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Reformation 500 - Six Days of Luther, Day 3 (from his commentary on Galatians 5:3)

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.  Exactly 500 years later, I am celebrating the great movement of God that followed his initial protest by posting his comments in full on this great passage in Galatians 5:1-6, six posts in a row.  Here's what he had to say about verse 3...

VERSE 3. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. 

The first fault with circumcision is that it makes Christ unprofitable. The second fault is that it obligates those who are circumcised to observe the whole Law. Paul is so very much in earnest about this matter that he confirms it with an oath. "I testify," he says, "I swear by the living God." Paul's statement may be explained negatively to mean: "I testify to every man who is being circumcised that he cannot perform the Law in any point. In the very act of circumcision he is not being circumcised, and in the very act of fulfilling the Law he fulfills it not." This seems to be the simple meaning of Paul's statement. Later on in the sixth chapter he explicitly states, "They themselves which are circumcised keep not the law. The fact that you are circumcised does not mean you are righteous and free from the Law. The truth is that by circumcision you have become debtors and servants of the Law. The more you endeavor to perform the Law, the more you will become tangled up in the yoke of the Law." 

The truth of this I have experienced in myself and in others. I have seen many work themselves down to the bones in their hungry effort to obtain peace of conscience. But the harder they tried the more they worried. Especially in the presence of death they were so uneasy that I have seen murderers die with better grace and courage. 

This holds true also in regard to the church regulations. When I was a monk I tried ever so hard to live up to the strict rules of my order. I used to make a list of my sins, and I was always on the way to confession, and whatever penances were enjoined upon me I performed religiously. In spite of it all, my conscience was always in a fever of doubt. The more I sought to help my poor stricken conscience the worse it got. The more I paid attention to the regulations the more I transgressed them. 

Hence those that seek to be justified by the Law are much further away from the righteousness of life than the publicans, sinners, and harlots. They know better than to trust in their own works. They know that they cannot ever hope to obtain forgiveness by their sins. 

Paul's statement in this verse may be taken to mean that those who submit to circumcision are thereby submitting to the whole Law. To obey Moses in one point requires obedience to him in all points. It does no good to say that only circumcision is necessary, and not the rest of Moses' laws. The same reasons that obligate a person to accept circumcision also obligate a person to accept the whole Law. Thus to acknowledge the Law is tantamount to declaring that Christ is not yet come. And if Christ is not yet come, then all the Jewish ceremonies and laws concerning meats, places, and times are still in force, and Christ must be awaited as one who is still to come. The whole Scripture, however, testifies that Christ has come, that by His death He has abolished the Law, and that He has fulfilled all things which the prophets have foretold about Him. 

Some would like to subjugate us to certain parts of the Mosaic Law. But this is not to be permitted under any circumstances. If we permit Moses to rule over us in one thing, we must obey him in all things.

Luther, Martin. Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (pp. 142-143). Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Reformation 500 - Six Days of Luther, Day 2 (from his commentary on Galatians 5:2)

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.  Exactly 500 years later, I am celebrating the great movement of God that followed his initial protest by posting his comments in full on this great passage in Galatians 5:1-6, six posts in a row.  Here's what he had to say about verse 2...

VERSE 2. Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. 

Paul is incensed at the thought of the tyranny of the Law. His antagonism to the Law is a personal matter with him. "Behold, I, Paul," he says, "I who have received the Gospel not from men, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ: I who have been commissioned from above to preach the Gospel to you: I Paul say to you, If you submit to circumcision Christ will profit you nothing." Paul emphatically declares that for the Galatians to be circumcised would mean for them to lose the benefits of Christ's suffering and death. This passage may well serve as a criterion for all the religions. To teach that besides faith in Christ other devices like works, or the observance of rules, traditions, or ceremonies are necessary for the attainment of righteousness and everlasting life, is to make Christ and His salvation of no benefit to anybody. 

This passage is an indictment of the whole papacy. All priests, monks, and nuns—and I am now speaking of the best of them—who repose their hope for salvation in their own works, and not in Christ, whom they imagine to he an angry judge, hear this sentence pronounced against them that Christ shall profit them nothing. If one can earn the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life through one's own efforts to what purpose was Christ born? What was the purpose of His suffering and death, His resurrection, His victory over sin, death, and the devil, if men may overcome these evils by their own endeavor? Tongue cannot express, nor heart conceive what a terrible thing it is to make Christ worthless. The person who is not moved by these considerations to leave the Law and the confidence in his own righteousness for the liberty in Christ, has a heart that is harder than stone and iron. 

Paul does not condemn circumcision in itself. Circumcision is not injurious to the person who does not ascribe any particular importance to it. Neither are works injurious provided a person does not attach any saving value to them. The Apostle does not say that works are objectionable, but to build one's hopes for righteousness on works is disastrous, for that makes Christ good for nothing. 

Let us bear this in mind when the devil accuses our conscience. When that dragon accuses us of having done no good at all, but only evil, say to him: "You trouble me with the remembrance of my past sins; you remind me that I have done no good. But this does not bother me, because if I were to trust in my own good deeds, or despair because I have done no good deeds, Christ would profit me neither way. I am not going to make him unprofitable to me. This I would do, if I should presume to purchase for myself the favor of God and everlasting life by my good deeds, or if I should despair of my salvation because of my sins."

Luther, Martin. Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (pp. 141-142). Kindle Edition.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Reformation 500 - Six Days of Luther, Day 1 (from his commentary on Galatians 5:1)

October 31, 1517 was the day that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door at the church in Wittenberg, and this week we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of that special day.  It is commonly thought of as the "official" beginning of the monumental movement of God called the Reformation, which in my opinion is one of the greatest events in the history of the world.  So I'd like to commemorate it by posting in full Luther's commentary on the first six verses of Galatians 5 during this week (one verse each post).  I've been reading through Galatians and Luther's commentary for the last four months along with some friends, and blogging about it along the way.  It amazes me how in the providence of God, at this particular time, I would happen to arrive at this landmark passage about justification by faith alone, which was of course Luther's favorite doctrine and the one he "got right" more than any other.  I hope you'll join me in celebrating Reformation 500 by giving just a few minutes to read some of the profound words God used to change the whole world!

Here are Luther's comments on Galatians 5:1...

VERSE 1. Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.

"Be steadfast, not careless. Lie not down and sleep, but stand up. Be watchful. Hold fast the liberty wherewith Christ hath made you free." Those who loll cannot keep this liberty. Satan hates the light of the Gospel. When it begins to shine a little he fights against it with might and main.

What liberty does Paul mean? Not civil liberty (for which we have the government to thank), but the liberty which Christ has procured for us. At one time the emperor was compelled to grant to the bishop of Rome certain immunities and privileges. This is civil liberty. That liberty exempts the clergy from certain public charges. Then there is also another kind of "liberty," when people obey neither the laws of God nor the laws of men, but do as they please. This carnal liberty the people want in our day. We are not now speaking of this liberty. Neither are we speaking of civil liberty. 

Paul is speaking of a far better liberty, the liberty "wherewith Christ hath made us free," not from material bonds, not from the Babylonian captivity, not from the tyranny of the Turks, but from the eternal wrath of God. 

Where is this liberty? In the conscience. Our conscience is free and quiet because it no longer has to fear the wrath of God. This is real liberty, compared with which every other kind of liberty is not worth mentioning. Who can adequately express the boon that comes to a person when he has the heart-assurance that God will nevermore be angry with him, but will forever be merciful to him for Christ's sake? This is indeed a marvelous liberty, to have the sovereign God for our Friend and Father who will defend, maintain, and save us in this life and in the life to come. 

As an outgrowth of this liberty, we are at the same time free from the Law, sin, death, the power of the devil, hell, etc. Since the wrath of God has been assuaged by Christ no Law, sin, or death may now accuse and condemn us. These foes of ours will continue to frighten us, but not too much. The worth of our Christian liberty cannot be exaggerated. Our conscience must he trained to fall back on the freedom purchased for us by Christ. Though the fears of the Law, the terrors of sin, the horror of death assail us occasionally, we know that these feelings shall not endure, because the prophet quotes God as saying: "In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment: but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee." (Isa. 54:8.) 

We shall appreciate this liberty all the more when we bear in mind that it was Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who purchased it with His own blood. Hence, Christ's liberty is given us not by the Law, or for our own righteousness, but freely for Christ's sake. In the eighth chapter of the Gospel of St. John, Jesus declares: "If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed." He only stands between us and the evils which trouble and afflict us and which He has overcome for us. 

Reason cannot properly evaluate this gift. Who can fully appreciate the blessing of the forgiveness of sins and of everlasting life? Our opponents claim that they also possess this liberty. But they do not. When they are put to the test all their self-confidence slips from them. What else can they expect when they trust in works and not in the Word of God? Our liberty is founded on Christ Himself, who sits at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. Therefore our liberty is sure and valid as long as we believe in Christ. As long as we cling to Him with a steadfast faith we possess His priceless gifts. But if we are careless and indifferent we shall lose them. It is not without good reason that Paul urges us to watch and to stand fast. He knew that the devil delights in taking this liberty away from us. 

VERSE 1. And be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. 

Because reason prefers the righteousness of the Law to the righteousness of faith, Paul calls the Law a yoke, a yoke of bondage. Peter also calls it a yoke. "Why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" (Acts 15:10.) 

In this passage Paul again disparages the pernicious notion that the Law is able to make men righteous before God, a notion deeply rooted in man's reason. All mankind is so wrapped up in this idea that it is hard to drag it out of people. Paul compares those who seek to be justified by the Law to oxen that are hitched to the yoke. Like oxen that toil in the yoke all day, and in the evening are turned out to graze along the dusty road, and at last are marked for slaughter when they no longer can draw the burden, so those who seek to be justified by the Law are "entangled with the yoke of bondage," and when they have grown old and broken-down in the service of the Law they have earned for their perpetual reward God's wrath and everlasting torment. 

We are not now treating of an unimportant matter. It is a matter that involves everlasting liberty or everlasting slavery. For as a liberation from God's wrath through the kind office of Christ is not a passing boon, but a permanent blessing, so also the yoke of the Law is not a temporary but an everlasting affliction. 

Rightly are the doers of the Law called devil's martyrs. They take more pains to earn hell than the martyrs of Christ to obtain heaven. Theirs is a double misfortune. First they torture themselves on earth with self- inflicted penances and finally when they die they gain the reward of eternal damnation.

Luther, Martin. Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (pp. 139-141). Kindle Edition.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Was Luther an Antinomian? (from his commentary on Galatians 4:21-31)

I will get to my answer to that question in a little while, but first let me share the passage I read about in Luther's commentary, and his summary of its basic meaning (which I think is right on).  Galatians 4:21-31 says,

"Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, 'Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.'  Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman."

Luther writes this about the overall point of that passage:

Paul quotes the allegorical prophecy of Isaiah to the effect that the mother of many children must die desolately, while the barren woman shall have an abundance of children. (Isaiah 54:1.) He applies this prophecy to Hagar and Sarah, to the Law and the Gospel. The Law as the husband of the fruitful woman procreates many children. For men of all ages have had the idea that they are right when they follow after the Law and outwardly perform its requirements. 

Although the Law has many children, they are not free. They are slaves. As servants they cannot have a share in the inheritance, but are driven from the house as Ishmael was cast out of the house of Abraham. In fact the servants of the Law are even now barred from the kingdom of light and liberty, for "he that believeth not, is condemned already." (John 3:18.) As the servants of the Law they remain under the curse of the Law, under sin and death, under the power of the devil, and under the wrath and judgment of God. 

On the other hand, Sarah, the free Church, seems barren. The Gospel of the Cross which the Church proclaims does not have the appeal that the Law has for men, and therefore it does not find many adherents. The Church does not look prosperous. Unbelievers have always predicted the death of the Church. The Jews were quite certain that the Church would not long endure. They said to Paul: "As concerning this sect, we know that everywhere it is spoken against." (Acts 28:22.) No matter how barren and forsaken, how weak and desolate the Church may seem, she alone is really fruitful before God. By the Gospel she procreates an infinite number of children that are free heirs of everlasting life.

So far so good, and as usual Luther gets the main point about justification right.  But then he goes on to say some things that raise the question of whether he was an antinomian.  The answer is... yes and no.  But no more than yes.  Let me explain...

The term "antinomian" comes from Greek words meaning "against law."  In a sense Luther is against law, and some critics (but not most scholars who know history) might apply the term to Luther because he makes statements like these:

The scholastics think that the judicial and ceremonial laws of Moses were abolished by the coming of Christ, but not the moral law. They are blind. When Paul declares that we are delivered from the curse of the Law he means the whole Law, particularly the moral law which more than the other laws accuses, curses, and condemns the conscience. The Ten Commandments have no right to condemn that conscience in which Jesus dwells, for Jesus has taken from the Ten Commandments the right and power to curse us.

Paul, however, refers particularly to the abolition of the moral law. If faith alone in Christ justifies, then the whole Law is abolished without exception. 

Luther is "against law" in the sense that obedience to it should never be considered as a basis of our justification before God.  But the most common historical meaning of antinomianism is that after justification believers are not required to obey God's law, and that it should not be taught to them or pressed upon their conscience in any way.  In that sense Luther is not an antinomian, as these further quotes from his commentary demonstrate:

Isaiah [in the OT passage Paul quotes] calls the Church barren because her children are born without effort by the Word of faith through the Spirit of God. It is a matter of birth, not of exertion. The believer too works, but not in an effort to become a son and an heir of God. He is that before he goes to work. He is born a son and an heir. He works for the glory of God and the welfare of his fellowmen.

St. Bernard was one of the best of the medieval saints. He lived a chaste and holy life. But when it came to dying he did not trust in his chaste life for salvation. He prayed: "I have lived a wicked life. But Thou, Lord Jesus, hast a heaven to give unto me. First, because Thou art the Son of God. Secondly, because Thou hast purchased heaven for me by Thy suffering and death. Thou givest heaven to me, not because I earned it, but because Thou hast earned it for me." If any of the Romanists are saved it is because they forget their good deeds and merits and feel like Paul: "Not having mine own righteousness which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ." (Phil. 3:9.)

When we understand the context of the first couple quotes, which may seem antinomian in flavor, we see that Luther was referring to the relationship of the law to justification rather than to sanctification. And we know from his other writings that he taught the Ten Commandments and other aspects of the moral law to the Christians under his care, and in fact he believed that even non-Christians needed to hear it in order to be convicted of their sins and "flee to Christ for salvation" (see this post about that). Also, believe it or not, he was actually the person who coined the term "antinomians" during his debates with some real ones among his followers, who said that the law should not even be taught in the churches.

So Luther could not rightly be called an antinomian himself, but he is not without blame for the excesses of those followers (just like he is not without blame for later German antisemitism), because of some of the language he used (like in the quotes above).  Interestingly, the final complete edition of his Galatians commentary was published in 1535, which was a few years prior to the rise of the real antimonians in the Lutheran Church.  (In Luther's preface to that edition, he names his foils as the Papists and the Anabaptists, but doesn't mention any antinomians.)  It wouldn't be a stretch to surmise that the immoderate statements in Luther's teaching about the law were used by the devil to promote the really bad ideas that came later.

That's a practical "takeaway" from this discussion:  Careless errors of wording, especially by great men of God, become heresy later among their followers.  Even so we should all be careful with our words and lives, because "where parents walk their children will run" and other such sayings are cliches for a reason.

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)