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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.