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.

Friday, September 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

Luther writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm no longer a slave to fear... 

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

...I am a child of God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


If my writing is a blessing to you, please consider supporting me:

Friday, September 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was the answer to depression before anti-depressants?

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

How did church planting and growth happen before demographic studies?

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

How did Christians prosper before they had prosperity teaching?

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

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

Were women ever blessed and happy before feminism?

Were men ever blessed and happy before football?

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

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

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

How did men become pastors before seminaries existed?

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

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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