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

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).