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.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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