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Monday, August 21, 2017

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

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

The good news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bad news

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 4, 2017

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

The issue of reputation in Scripture can be a little confusing...  Ecclesiastes 7:1 says "a good name is better than a good ointment" and 1 Timothy 3 says church leaders "must be above reproach" (v. 2) and "must have a good reputation with those outside the church" (v. 7)  But Jesus Christ "made himself of no reputation" (Phil. 2:7), was "despised and rejected by men" (Isa. 53:3), and taught us that our union with him means that we will inevitably experience the same things (Matt. 5:11, John 15:18).

So how should we navigate this matter?  Well, the apostle Paul gives us some insight in Galatians 2:1-10, and the great Reformer Martin Luther supplies some more in his commentary on the book.

Paul has been defending his apostolic authority (and more importantly the gospel he preached) since the middle of chapter 1 (see my last blog post), and he continues in these verses with a special emphasis on the issue of reputation.

Reputation is overrated

As usual, Paul seems uncomfortable defending his own reputation, and he even seems reluctant to talk about the reputation of others.  He is obviously only doing it because he has to, as evidenced by his wording about the other apostles:  "those who seemed influential" (vv. 2 and 6), "who seemed to be pillars" (v. 9), and "what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality" (v. 6).

Luther explains well Paul's ambivalence toward how much respect one has from others:

What could Paul say to that [the fact that he had less reputation than the other apostles]? He answered: "What they say has no bearing on the argument. If the apostles were angels from heaven, that would not impress me. We are not now discussing the excellency of the apostles. We are talking about the Word of God now, and the truth of the Gospel. That Gospel is more excellent than all apostles."

Least we attach too much importance to the person, God leaves with important persons offenses and sins, sometimes astounding shortcomings, to show us that there is a lot of difference between any person and God. David was a good king. But when the people began to think too well of him, down he fell into horrible sins, adultery and murder. Peter, excellent apostle that he was, denied Christ. Such examples of which the Scriptures are full, ought to warn us not to repose our trust in men.

We all have our sins and weaknesses, and when they're exposed some people will make us seem even worse in their thoughts and words.  (Within the same Psalm David often expresses regret for his own sins and also complains of unjust judgments and slanders against him...Psalm 94 is a good example.)  That makes our reputations quite precarious.  Like shifting sands, one's character might be esteemed highly at one moment and reviled the next, often by the same people. I've had people tell me I shouldn't be a pastor because of sins that I've committed in my past, and I've had others tell me I'm better equipped now because of them.  (I have no desire to be a pastor anytime soon, if ever, but it illustrates my point about the subjective nature of reputation.)

Any pursuit of universal acceptance and esteem is truly futile...even the most highly respected Christian leaders all have numerous detractors who think they're not qualified for this or that reason, or label them as false teachers.  A brief online search of any of their names will reveal as much.

Reputation is a means to an end

Paul knew how subjective and situational reputation is, so he didn't place much stock in it.  He even told the Corinthians, "With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court...the one who examines me is the Lord" (1 Cor. 4:3-4).  But he addressed the issue when he believed that he had to, because the ministry of the gospel was at stake.  This is illustrated in some of Luther's comments on the text:

The opinion that obedience to the Law was mandatory unto salvation was gaining ground. Paul meant to remedy this evil. By this conference he hoped to establish the identity of his Gospel with that of the other apostles, to stop the talk of his opponents that he had been running around in vain.

Paul refused to circumcise Titus for the reason that the false apostles wanted to compel him to circumcise Titus. Paul refused to accede to their demands. If they had asked it on the plea of brotherly love, Paul would not have denied them. But because they demanded it on the ground that it was necessary for salvation, Paul defied them.

Some secular writers put Paul's boasting down as carnal pride. But Paul had no personal interest in his boasting. It was with him a matter of faith and doctrine. The controversy was not about the glory of Paul, but the glory of God, the Word of God, the true worship of God, true religion, and the righteousness of faith.

So our conclusion should be similar to the one we reached regarding the previous passage in Galatians... our reputation should not be built up or defended for its own sake, but only for the purpose of being able to better minister the gospel to others.  That's the reason it's important for all believers to seek the best reputation possible--"so that the Word of God will not be dishonored," as Paul says in another context (Titus 2:5).

Don't be overly concerned about your own reputation, and don't be too impressed with that of others.  Walk with God, seek to do the right thing before him, and if a situation arises where the gospel is being hindered by what people are thinking or saying about you, then address it if you have to.  But always remember that "God shows no partiality," as Paul says in verse 6.  We are all undeserving sinners with an audience of one, so we should "make it our aim to please him" (2 Cor. 5:9).

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

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

In the second half of Galatians 1 (and halfway into chapter 2), Paul recounts with extensive detail how he learned (and did not learn) the gospel he was called to preach.  He does this because the validity of his apostolic ministry was being called into question by other church leaders, and especially by those who have come to be known as the "Judaizers."  As Luther writes, "Paul was forced to speak of his conversion to combat the slanderous contention of the false apostles to the effect that this apostleship was inferior to that of the other apostles."

And Luther himself takes the opportunity afforded by the writing of his commentary to defend his own ministry against the accusations of his critics:

The arguments which the false apostles advanced impress people to this day. "Who are you to dissent from the fathers and the entire Church, and to bring a contradictory doctrine? Are you wiser than so many holy men, wiser than the whole Church?" When Satan, abetted by our own reason, advances these arguments against us, we lose heart, unless we keep on saying to ourselves: "I don't care if Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine, Peter, Paul, John, or an angel from heaven, teaches so and so. I know that I teach the truth of God in Christ Jesus."

The letter to Galatians is not the only time Paul defends his character and ministry (he does it throughout the book of 2 Corinthians as well).  And the commentary on Galatians is not the only time Luther did it either (the Diet of Worms being one prominent example, of course).

Perhaps you have wondered, like I have...When is it right and wise to defend ourselves, and when should we not? (1 Corinthians 6:7 even says, "Why not rather be wronged?")  That's always a tough question, but maybe Paul's and Luther's words can provide some guidance for us...

Defend yourself when the truth of God's Word, and the honor of God himself, is at stake.

This is obviously Paul's concern in Galatians 1, where at the beginning of the passage he says that his gospel was received through "a revelation of Jesus Christ" (v. 12), and at the end he says "they were glorifying God because of me" (v. 24).  Luther also has the same concerns:

The article of justification is fragile. Not in itself, of course, but in us. I know how quickly a person can forfeit the joy of the Gospel. I know in what slippery places even those stand who seem to have a good footing in the matters of faith. In the midst of the conflict when we should be consoling ourselves with the Gospel, the Law rears up and begins to rage all over our conscience. I say the Gospel is frail because we are frail.

What makes matters worse is that one-half of ourselves, our own reason, stands against us. The flesh resists the spirit, or as Paul puts it, "The flesh lusteth against the Spirit." Therefore we teach that to know Christ and to believe in Him is no achievement of man, but the gift of God. God alone can create and preserve faith in us. God creates faith in us through the Word. He increases, strengthens and confirms faith in us through His word. Hence the best service that anybody can render God is diligently to hear and read God's Word. On the other hand, nothing is more perilous than to be weary of the Word of God. Thinking he knows enough, a person begins little by little to despise the Word until he has lost Christ and the Gospel altogether. 

Let every believer carefully learn the Gospel. Let him continue in humble prayer. We are molested not by puny foes, but by mighty ones, foes who never grow tired of warring against us. These, our enemies, are many: Our own flesh, the world, the Law, sin, death, the wrath and judgment of God, and the devil himself.

Defend yourself if your ability to help others is being hindered.

Paul and Luther weren't worried about the effects that misunderstanding and slander would have on their personal pride, their ability to make money, or their reputation for it's own sake.  Rather, for the welfare of others they took the time and energy to respond to public criticism.

This can be seen in the whole tone and context of Paul's words in this passage, and also in 2 Corinthians, where he sometimes even seems apologetic that he has to defend himself when he'd rather not.  Early in that book, he says in Chapter 4 verse 15, "For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God."

Luther likewise says, "Why does Paul harp on this seemingly unimportant fact [that he didn't learn anything from the other apostles]? To convince the churches of Galatia that his Gospel was the true Word of Christ which he learned from Christ Himself and from no man. Paul was forced to affirm and re-affirm this fact. His usefulness to all the churches that had used him as their pastor and teacher was at stake."

In many situations, it's not necessarily right or wrong to defend yourself...only you and God can decide whether you should or not.  But if your motivation is not primarily love for God and others, and it's more about you, "why not rather be wronged?"  It's an opportunity to follow in the steps of Jesus, "who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth; and while being reviled, he did not revile in return; while suffering, he uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to God who judges righteously." (1 Peter 2:22-23).

Saturday, July 15, 2017

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

As I've been reading through Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians again after many years, I've come to that DAMN passage in Chapter 1 where Paul DAMNS anyone who preaches a false gospel.  Yes, I'm intentionally using that word, and intentionally using it twice because of Paul's repeated use of the Greek word anathema in verses 6-10 of Chapter 1:

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. 10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

As Luther writes, "The Greek word anathema, Hebrew herem, means to accurse, execrate, to damn."

Let's talk about what the apostle Paul, and the great Reformer, were so worked up about, and how it might apply to us today...  [I am trying to post about relatively small sections of the text in these early articles, so that any of you who would like to read through Luther's commentary with me can get caught up and not get too far behind.  See the end of my first post from last week for recommendations on which versions of the commentary to read...I'm planning to cover about half a chapter per week from now on.]

Luther summarizes the Galatian problem in this way:

Paul calls the false apostles troublers of the church because they taught circumcision and the keeping of the Law as needful unto salvation. They insisted that the Law must be observed in every detail. They were supporters in this contention by the Jews, with the result that those who were not firmly established in faith were easily persuaded that Paul was not a sincere teacher of God because he ignored the Law. The Jews were offended at the idea that the Law of God should be entirely ignored by Paul and that the Gentiles, former idol-worshippers, should gratuitously attain to the station of God's people without circumcision, without the penitentiary performance of the law, by grace alone through faith in Christ Jesus.

Luther also makes practical application and encouragement from the text to his readers:

When the devil sees that he cannot hurt the cause of the Gospel by destructive methods, he does it under the guise of correcting and advancing the cause of the Gospel. He would like best of all to persecute us with fire and sword, but this method has availed him little because through the blood of martyrs the church has been watered. Unable to prevail by force, he engages wicked and ungodly teachers who at first make common cause with us, then claim that they are particularly called to teach the hidden mysteries of the Scriptures to superimpose upon the first principles of Christian doctrine that we teach. This sort of thing brings the Gospel into trouble.

May we all cling to the Word of Christ against the wiles of the devil, "for we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."

So what about today?  What are some examples of "false gospels" that we need to beware of?  Here are some suggestions for you to think about...

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.

Other thoughts? What other kinds of teaching do you think the apostle Paul might be worried about today?  Tell us in the comments section below.  And if anything I've said here has made you uncomfortable, from my use of a "four-letter word" (for emphasis) to my pointed criticisms of contemporary teaching, please remember that I, like Paul, am not "trying to please man."  As Luther wrote about verse 10...

To this day you will find many who seek to please men in order that they may live in peace and security. They teach whatever is agreeable to men, no matter whether it is contrary to God's Word or their own conscience. But we who endeavor to please God and not men, stir up hell itself.

Oops, there goes another four-letter word!  But all false gospels are truly damnable and hellish and deserve to be addressed in the strongest terms, because people's souls are on the line.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

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

"Preach the gospel to yourself" has become a beloved and meaningful maxim to many believers, while others are concerned that it has been overused and often misused.  I recently listened to a Q&A with a famous pastor where he was critical of the saying, but then backtracked a bit and qualified his comments when the interviewer said, "But there's some truth to it, right?"

There definitely is truth to it, because it's from the Bible.  The apostle Paul basically says the same thing in different words in Romans 6:11:  "Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus."  And there are many other passages that encourage us to remind ourselves of gospel truth, whether by command or example.

The problem is sometimes people use it more like a meaningless mantra than a meaning-filled maxim, as if just reciting gospel truth or encouraging others to do it is a means of grace all by itself.  And even when the the truth is clearly grasped and sincerely believed, "preach the gospel to yourself" can lead to an imbalance when only part of the gospel is being rehearsed.  The "good news" of the gospel includes the message of deliverance from the power and presence of sin as well as the penalty of sin, but sometimes "preach the gospel to yourself" only means the latter.  In other words, sometimes people are only looking to the truths of faith and justification to help them with the problems they face, while neglecting the biblical teachings about repentance and sanctification that are also necessary for true change.

But as long as the truth of free justification is understood in the context of the holistic biblical teaching about the gospel, it is often the message we need to hear the most, from others and within our own hearts.  And that brings me to Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians, which I just started reading again for the first time since it changed my life almost 20 years ago (along with some friends who have agreed to go through it with me, and will hopefully participate here by posting their comments).

Luther's Commentary on Galatians was his favorite work.  It was the first book he wrote after he was tried at the Diet of Worms and then locked up in Wartburg Castle by his friend Prince Frederick to keep him from being killed by the agents of the Pope.  Luther always "spoke in thunderbolts," as Charles Spurgeon said about him, and the ordeal that the Reformer had just experienced plus the relevance of the content of Galatians caused his electric words to be even more super-charged than usual.

Speaking of favorites, by the way, Pilgrim's Progress author John Bunyan said, "I do prefer this book of Martin Luther upon the Galatians, excepting the Holy Bible, before all books that I have ever seen for a wounded conscience."  Regarding his own experience with Luther’s commentary on Galatians, Bunyan wrote, "The God in whose hands are all our days and ways one day brought into my possession a book by Martin Luther.  It was his commentary on Galatians.  It was so old that, if I so much as turned it over, it was ready to fall to pieces.  I was so pleased that such an old book had fallen into my hands that when, just a few pages into it, I found my condition so comprehensively described by Luther’s experience, it was as if his book had been written from my own heart."

Notice that Bunyan doesn't say it's the best book ever, much less that it's the only book we need for the myriad of challenges we face as Christians.  But as far as it goes, Luther's commentary is a major shot in the arm for those who are plagued by any form of works righteousness and need a big dose of free grace and justification by faith alone.  And toward that end, it goes very far indeed.

Here are some excerpts from Luther's comments on Galatians 1:1-4...

The fact is, the more a person seeks credit for himself by his own efforts, the deeper he goes into debt. Nothing can take away sin except the grace of God.

We find no rest for our weary bones unless we cling to the word of grace....Worldly peace provides quiet enjoyment of life and possessions. But in affliction, particularly in the hour of death, the grace and peace of the world will not deliver us. However, the grace and peace of God will. They make a person strong and courageous to bear and to overcome all difficulties, even death itself, because we have the victory of Christ's death and the assurance of the forgiveness of our sins.

Paul sticks to his theme. He never loses sight of the purpose of his epistle. He does not say, "Who received our works," but "who gave." Gave what? Not gold, or silver, or paschal lambs, or an angel, but Himself. What for? Not for a crown, or a kingdom, or our goodness, but for our sins. These words are like so many thunderclaps of protest from heaven against every kind and type of self-merit. Underscore these words, for they are full of comfort for sore consciences. How may we obtain remission of our sins? Paul answers: "The man who is named Jesus Christ and the Son of God gave himself for our sins." The heavy artillery of these words explodes papacy, works, merits, superstitions. For if our sins could be removed by our own efforts, what need was there for the Son of God to be given for them? Since Christ was given for our sins it stands to reason that they cannot be put away by our own efforts.

The genius of Christianity takes the words of Paul "who gave himself for our sins" as true and efficacious. We are not to look upon our sins as insignificant trifles. On the other hand, we are not to regard them as so terrible that we must despair. Learn to believe that Christ was given, not for picayune and imaginary transgressions, but for mountainous sins; not for one or two, but for all; not for sins that can be discarded, but for sins that are stubbornly ingrained. Practice this knowledge and fortify yourself against despair, particularly in the last hour, when the memory of past sins assails the conscience. Say with confidence: "Christ, the Son of God, was given not for the righteous, but for sinners. If I had no sin I should not need Christ. No, Satan, you cannot delude me into thinking I am holy. The truth is, I am all sin. My sins are not imaginary transgressions, but sins against the first table, unbelief, doubt, despair, contempt, hatred, ignorance of God, ingratitude towards Him, misuse of His name, neglect of His Word, etc.; and sins against the second table, dishonor of parents, disobedience of government, coveting of another's possessions, etc. Granted that I have not committed murder, adultery, theft, and similar sins in deed, nevertheless I have committed them in the heart, and therefore I am a transgressor of all the commandments of God. "Because my transgressions are multiplied and my own efforts at self-justification rather a hindrance than a furtherance, therefore Christ the Son of God gave Himself into death for my sins." To believe this is to have eternal life. Let us equip ourselves against the accusations of Satan with this and similar passages of Holy Scripture. If he says, "Thou shalt be damned," you tell him: "No, for I fly to Christ who gave Himself for my sins. In accusing me of being a damnable sinner, you are cutting your own throat, Satan. You are reminding me of God's fatherly goodness toward me, that He so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. In calling me a sinner, Satan, you really comfort me above measure." With such heavenly cunning we are to meet the devil's craft and put from us the memory of sin.

So there you have it....Luther telling us to preach the gospel to ourselves (and even to the Devil, when we need to resist him!).  May you be blessed as I was by what he wrote, and perhaps you would like to join me as I read through this wonderful commentary during my personal time with the Lord over the next few months.  You can share your insights, questions, and favorite quotes in the comments section of the posts, and maybe the Lord will allow this to develop into a kind of "study group" where we can be a blessing to one another.

My favorite version of the commentary is this one, but since it's not available on Kindle I got a digital copy of this one because I like to read in my bed at night or right after I wake up in the morning.  The latter is the source of my quotes.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A song about Jesus, written a thousand years before He was born

I was reading Psalm 45 recently and discovered that it's all about Jesus.  It’s quoted a number of times in the New Testament in reference to Him, and can’t possibly be about Solomon, because it refers to the son and prince as God himself.  So I also read Charles Spurgeon in his Treasury of David, to see what the great preacher had to say with such an opportunity to wax eloquent on our Lord and Savior.  Please take just a few minutes to read the passage and Spurgeon's comments on its Divine Subject, who as I like to say is “the best thing that ever happened to this planet.”  Jesus is also the best thing that ever happened to me personally, and I hope you will grow along with me to love him more and more!

Psalm 145:2,6-7 says (in KJV, the version Spurgeon used):  2 Thou art fairer than the children of men: grace is poured into thy lips: therefore God hath blessed thee forever...  6 Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: the sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre.  7 Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness: therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.

And Spurgeon says (get ready for some eloquent waxing:),

Verse 2.  Thou art fairer than the children of men. In person, but especially in mind and character, the King of saints is peerless in beauty. The Hebrew word is doubled, "Beautiful, beautiful art thou." Jesus is so emphatically lovely that words must be doubled, strained, yea, exhausted before he can be described. Among the children of men many have through grace been lovely in character, yet they have each had a flaw; but in Jesus we behold every feature of a perfect character in harmonious proportion. He is lovely everywhere, and from every point of view.

Verse 6. Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever. To whom can this be spoken but our Lord? The psalmist cannot restrain his adoration. His enlightened eye sees in the royal Husband of the church, God, God to be adored, God reigning, God reigning everlastingly. Blessed sight! Blind are the eyes that cannot see God in Christ Jesus! We never appreciate the tender condescension of our King in becoming one flesh with his church, and placing her at his right hand, until we have fully rejoiced in his essential glory and deity. What a mercy for us that our Saviour is God, for who but a God could execute the work of salvation? What a glad thing it is that he reigns on a throne which will never pass away, for we need both sovereign grace and eternal love to secure our happiness. Could Jesus cease to reign we should cease to be blessed, and were he not God, and therefore eternal, this must be the case. No throne can endure forever, but that on which God himself sitteth. The sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre. He is the lawful monarch of all things that be. His rule is founded in right, its law is right, its result is right. Our King is no usurper and no oppressor. Even when he shall break his enemies with a rod of iron, he will do no man wrong; his vengeance and his grace are both in conformity with justice. Hence we trust him without suspicion; he cannot err; no affliction is too severe, for he sends it; no judgment too harsh, for he ordains it. O blessed hands of Jesus! the reigning power is safe with you. All the just rejoice in the government of the King who reigns in righteousness.

Verse 7. Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness. Christ Jesus is not neutral in the great contest between right and wrong: as warmly as he loves the one he abhors the other. What qualifications for a sovereign! what grounds of confidence for a people! The whole of our Lord's life on earth proved the truth of these words; his death to put away sin and bring in the reign of righteousness, sealed the fact beyond all question; his providence by which he rules from his mediatorial throne, when rightly understood, reveals the same; and his final assize will proclaim it before all worlds. We should imitate him both in his love and hate; they are both needful to complete a righteous character. Therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows. Jesus as Mediator owned God as his God, to whom, being found in fashion as a man, he became obedient. On account of our Lord's perfect life he is now rewarded with superior joy. Others there are to whom grace has given a sacred fellowship with him, but by their universal consent and his own merit, he is prince among them, the gladdest of all because the cause of all their gladness. At Oriental feasts oil was poured on the heads of distinguished and very welcome guests; God himself anoints the man Christ Jesus, as he sits at the heavenly feasts, anoints him as a reward for his work, with higher and fuller joy than any else can know; thus is the Son of man honoured and rewarded for all his pains. Observe the indisputable testimony to Messiah's Deity in verse six, and to his manhood in the present verse. Of whom could this be written but of Jesus of Nazareth? Our Christ is our Elohim. Jesus is God with us.

*****That was an old Psalm and old-time preacher, but here’s a contemporary singer and song for you… for some real honesty and authenticity, and a beautiful prayer to that wonderful Savior, check out this video: