Why the Reformation Still Matters

by Michael Reeves

Last year, on October 31, Pope Francis announced that after five hundred years, Protestants and Catholics now “have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another.” From that, it sounds as if the Reformation was an unfortunate and unnecessary squabble over trifles, a childish outburst that we can all put behind us now that we have grown up.

But tell that to Martin Luther, who felt such liberation and joy at his rediscovery of justification by faith alone that he wrote, “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” Tell that to William Tyndale, who found it such “merry, glad and joyful tidings” that it made him “sing, dance, and leap for joy.” Tell it to Thomas Bilney, who found it gave him “a marvelous comfort and quietness, insomuch that my bruised bones leaped for joy.” Clearly, those first Reformers didn’t think they were picking a juvenile fight; as they saw it, they had discovered glad tidings of great joy.

Good News in 1517

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Europe had been without a Bible the people could read for something like a thousand years. Thomas Bilney had thus never encountered the words “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Instead of the Word of God, they were left to the understanding that God is a God who enables people to earn their own salvation. As one of the teachers of the day liked to put it, “God will not deny grace to those who do their best.” Yet what were meant as cheering words left a very sour taste for everyone who took them seriously. How could you be sure you really had done your best? How could you tell if you had become the sort of just person who merited salvation?

Martin Luther certainly tried. “I was a good monk,” he wrote, “and kept my order so strictly that I could say that if ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I should have entered in.” And yet, he found:

My conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, “You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.” The more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weak and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more daily I found it more uncertain, weaker and more troubled.

According to Roman Catholicism, Luther was quite right to be unsure of heaven. Confidence of a place in heaven was considered errant presumption and was one of the charges made against Joan of Arc at her trial in 1431. There, the judges proclaimed,

This woman sins when she says she is as certain of being received into Paradise as if she were already a partaker of . . . glory, seeing that on this earthly journey no pilgrim knows if he is worthy of glory or of punishment, which the sovereign judge alone can tell.

That judgment made complete sense within the logic of the system: if we can only enter heaven because we have (by God’s enabling grace) become personally worthy of it, then of course no one can be sure. By that line of reasoning, I can only have as much confidence in heaven as I have confidence in my own sinlessness.

That was exactly why the young Martin Luther screamed with fear when as a student he was nearly struck by lightning in a thunderstorm. He was terrified of death, for without knowledge of Christ’s sufficient and gracious salvation—without knowledge of justification by faith alone—he had no hope of heaven.

And that was why his rediscovery in Scripture of justification by faith alone felt like entering paradise through open gates. It meant that, instead of all his angst and terror, he could now write:

When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: “I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.”

And that was why the Reformation gave people such a taste for sermons and Bible reading. For, to be able to read God’s words and to see in them such good news that God saves sinners, not on the basis of how well they repent but entirely by His own grace, was like a burst of Mediterranean sunshine into the gray world of religious guilt.

Good News in 2017

None of the goodness or relevance of the Reformation’s insights have faded over the last five hundred years. The answers to the same key questions still make all the difference between human hopelessness and happiness. What will happen to me when I die? How can I know? Is justification the gift of a righteous status (as the Reformers argued), or a process of becoming more holy (as Rome asserts)? Can I confidently rely for my salvation on Christ alone, or does my salvation also rest on my own efforts toward and success in achieving holiness?

Almost certainly, what confuses people into thinking that the Reformation is a bit of history we can move beyond is the idea that it was just a reaction to some problem of the day. But the closer one looks, the clearer it becomes: the Reformation was not principally a negative movement about moving away from Rome and its corruption; it was a positive movement, about moving toward the gospel. And that is precisely what preserves the validity of the Reformation for today. If the Reformation had been a mere reaction to a historical situation five hundred years ago, one would expect it to be over. But as a program to move ever closer to the gospel, it cannot be over.

Another objection is that today’s culture of positive thinking and self-esteem has wiped away all perceived need for the sinner to be justified. Not many today find themselves wearing hair-shirts and enduring all-night prayer vigils in the freezing cold to earn God’s favor. All in all, then, Luther’s problem of being tortured by guilt before the divine Judge is dismissed as a sixteenth-century problem, and his solution of justification by faith alone is therefore dismissed as unnecessary for us today.

But it is in fact precisely into this context that Luther’s solution rings out as such happy and relevant news. For, having jettisoned the idea that we might ever be guilty before God and therefore in need of His justification, our culture has succumbed to the old problem of guilt in subtler ways and with no means to answer. Today, we are all bombarded with the message that we will be more loved when we make ourselves more attractive. It may not be God-related, and yet it is  still a religion of works, and one that is deeply embedded. For that, the Reformation has the most sparkling good news. Luther speaks words that cut through the gloom like a glorious and utterly unexpected sunbeam:

The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. . . . Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore, sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.

Once Again, the Time Is Ripe

Five hundred years later, the Roman Catholic Church has still not been reformed. For all the warm ecumenical language used by so many Protestants and Roman Catholics, Rome still repudiates justification by faith alone. It feels it can do so because Scripture is not regarded as the supreme authority to which popes, councils, and doctrine must conform. And because Scripture is so relegated, biblical literacy is not encouraged, and thus millions of poor Roman Catholics are still kept from the light of God’s Word.

Outside Roman Catholicism, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is routinely shied away from as insignificant, wrongheaded, or perplexing. Some new perspectives on what the Apostle Paul meant by justification, especially when they have tended to shift the emphasis away from any need for personal conversion, have, as much as anything, confused people, leaving the article that Luther said cannot be given up or compromised as just that—given up or compromised.

Now is not a time to be shy about justification or the supreme authority of the Scriptures that proclaim it. Justification by faith alone is no relic of the history books; it remains today as the only message of ultimate liberation, the message with the deepest power to make humans unfurl and flourish. It gives assurance before our holy God and turns sinners who attempt to buy God off into saints who love and fear Him.

And oh what opportunities we have today for spreading this good news! Five hundred years ago, Gutenberg’s recent invention of the printing press meant that the light of the gospel could spread at a speed never before witnessed. Tyndale’s Bibles and Luther’s tracts could go out by the thousands. Today, digital technology has given us another Gutenberg moment, and the same message can now be spread at speeds Luther could never have imagined.

Both the needs and the opportunities are as great as they were five hundred years ago—in fact, they are greater. Let us then take courage from the faithfulness of the Reformers and hold the same wonderful gospel high, for it has lost none of its glory or its power to dispel our darkness.

__________________________

Dr. Michael Reeves is president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in Oxford, England. He is author of several books, including Rejoicing in Christ. He is the featured teacher on the Ligonier teaching series The English Reformation and the Puritans.

Why the Reformation Still Matters

by Michael Reeves

 

Last year, on October 31, Pope Francis announced that after five hundred years, Protestants and Catholics now “have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another.” From that, it sounds as if the Reformation was an unfortunate and unnecessary squabble over trifles, a childish outburst that we can all put behind us now that we have grown up.

But tell that to Martin Luther, who felt such liberation and joy at his rediscovery of justification by faith alone that he wrote, “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” Tell that to William Tyndale, who found it such “merry, glad and joyful tidings” that it made him “sing, dance, and leap for joy.” Tell it to Thomas Bilney, who found it gave him “a marvelous comfort and quietness, insomuch that my bruised bones leaped for joy.” Clearly, those first Reformers didn’t think they were picking a juvenile fight; as they saw it, they had discovered glad tidings of great joy.

Good News in 1517

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Europe had been without a Bible the people could read for something like a thousand years. Thomas Bilney had thus never encountered the words “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Instead of the Word of God, they were left to the understanding that God is a God who enables people to earn their own salvation. As one of the teachers of the day liked to put it, “God will not deny grace to those who do their best.” Yet what were meant as cheering words left a very sour taste for everyone who took them seriously. How could you be sure you really had done your best? How could you tell if you had become the sort of just person who merited salvation?

Martin Luther certainly tried. “I was a good monk,” he wrote, “and kept my order so strictly that I could say that if ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I should have entered in.” And yet, he found:

My conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, “You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.” The more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weak and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more daily I found it more uncertain, weaker and more troubled.

According to Roman Catholicism, Luther was quite right to be unsure of heaven. Confidence of a place in heaven was considered errant presumption and was one of the charges made against Joan of Arc at her trial in 1431. There, the judges proclaimed,

This woman sins when she says she is as certain of being received into Paradise as if she were already a partaker of . . . glory, seeing that on this earthly journey no pilgrim knows if he is worthy of glory or of punishment, which the sovereign judge alone can tell.

That judgment made complete sense within the logic of the system: if we can only enter heaven because we have (by God’s enabling grace) become personally worthy of it, then of course no one can be sure. By that line of reasoning, I can only have as much confidence in heaven as I have confidence in my own sinlessness.

That was exactly why the young Martin Luther screamed with fear when as a student he was nearly struck by lightning in a thunderstorm. He was terrified of death, for without knowledge of Christ’s sufficient and gracious salvation—without knowledge of justification by faith alone—he had no hope of heaven.

And that was why his rediscovery in Scripture of justification by faith alone felt like entering paradise through open gates. It meant that, instead of all his angst and terror, he could now write:

When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: “I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.”

And that was why the Reformation gave people such a taste for sermons and Bible reading. For, to be able to read God’s words and to see in them such good news that God saves sinners, not on the basis of how well they repent but entirely by His own grace, was like a burst of Mediterranean sunshine into the gray world of religious guilt.

Good News in 2017

None of the goodness or relevance of the Reformation’s insights have faded over the last five hundred years. The answers to the same key questions still make all the difference between human hopelessness and happiness. What will happen to me when I die? How can I know? Is justification the gift of a righteous status (as the Reformers argued), or a process of becoming more holy (as Rome asserts)? Can I confidently rely for my salvation on Christ alone, or does my salvation also rest on my own efforts toward and success in achieving holiness?

Almost certainly, what confuses people into thinking that the Reformation is a bit of history we can move beyond is the idea that it was just a reaction to some problem of the day. But the closer one looks, the clearer it becomes: the Reformation was not principally a negative movement about moving away from Rome and its corruption; it was a positive movement, about moving toward the gospel. And that is precisely what preserves the validity of the Reformation for today. If the Reformation had been a mere reaction to a historical situation five hundred years ago, one would expect it to be over. But as a program to move ever closer to the gospel, it cannot be over.

Another objection is that today’s culture of positive thinking and self-esteem has wiped away all perceived need for the sinner to be justified. Not many today find themselves wearing hair-shirts and enduring all-night prayer vigils in the freezing cold to earn God’s favor. All in all, then, Luther’s problem of being tortured by guilt before the divine Judge is dismissed as a sixteenth-century problem, and his solution of justification by faith alone is therefore dismissed as unnecessary for us today.

But it is in fact precisely into this context that Luther’s solution rings out as such happy and relevant news. For, having jettisoned the idea that we might ever be guilty before God and therefore in need of His justification, our culture has succumbed to the old problem of guilt in subtler ways and with no means to answer. Today, we are all bombarded with the message that we will be more loved when we make ourselves more attractive. It may not be God-related, and yet it is  still a religion of works, and one that is deeply embedded. For that, the Reformation has the most sparkling good news. Luther speaks words that cut through the gloom like a glorious and utterly unexpected sunbeam:

The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. . . . Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore, sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.

Once Again, the Time Is Ripe

Five hundred years later, the Roman Catholic Church has still not been reformed. For all the warm ecumenical language used by so many Protestants and Roman Catholics, Rome still repudiates justification by faith alone. It feels it can do so because Scripture is not regarded as the supreme authority to which popes, councils, and doctrine must conform. And because Scripture is so relegated, biblical literacy is not encouraged, and thus millions of poor Roman Catholics are still kept from the light of God’s Word.

Outside Roman Catholicism, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is routinely shied away from as insignificant, wrongheaded, or perplexing. Some new perspectives on what the Apostle Paul meant by justification, especially when they have tended to shift the emphasis away from any need for personal conversion, have, as much as anything, confused people, leaving the article that Luther said cannot be given up or compromised as just that—given up or compromised.

Now is not a time to be shy about justification or the supreme authority of the Scriptures that proclaim it. Justification by faith alone is no relic of the history books; it remains today as the only message of ultimate liberation, the message with the deepest power to make humans unfurl and flourish. It gives assurance before our holy God and turns sinners who attempt to buy God off into saints who love and fear Him.

And oh what opportunities we have today for spreading this good news! Five hundred years ago, Gutenberg’s recent invention of the printing press meant that the light of the gospel could spread at a speed never before witnessed. Tyndale’s Bibles and Luther’s tracts could go out by the thousands. Today, digital technology has given us another Gutenberg moment, and the same message can now be spread at speeds Luther could never have imagined.

Both the needs and the opportunities are as great as they were five hundred years ago—in fact, they are greater. Let us then take courage from the faithfulness of the Reformers and hold the same wonderful gospel high, for it has lost none of its glory or its power to dispel our darkness.

__________________________

Dr. Michael Reeves is president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in Oxford, England. He is author of several books, including Rejoicing in Christ. He is the featured teacher on the Ligonier teaching series The English Reformation and the Puritans.

John Calvin and the Reformation

From an article at Protestant Reformers

Of all the great Protestant reformers, John Calvin is considered to be second in importance only to Martin Luther. However, when considering only the impact of his theology there is no reformer that compares with Calvin.

John Calvin was the theologian of the Protestant Reformation. God used Calvin to restore great truths which had been squashed by the Catholic church during the Dark Ages. His teachings (especially on predestination) were revolutionary in the 16th century and are still very controversial today. He also crystallized many of the Biblical doctrines that fellow Protestant reformers like John Wycliffe, John Huss and Martin Luther had initially preached.  

John Calvin was born in Noyon, France on July 10, 1509. Calvin was a brilliant student even at a very young age. At the age of only fourteen, he entered University of Paris, then the most prestigious university in Europe. He excelled in his studies and by the age of eighteen, he had earned his Master of Arts degree.

At this point his father persuaded him to take up the study of law (like Martin Luther). However, at the age of only 21, Calvin began to be drawn to the study of God’s word. The study of law and its prosperous career path no longer held a great appeal to him. Although he finished out his doctoral program, his passion was already developing for the Scriptures.

Calvin began to understand that many of the teachings of the Catholic church did not harmonize with the scriptures. He joined those that were calling for reforms and renewal in the church. This eventually led to persecution and Calvin was forced to flee France after his close friend openly proclaimed Reformation teachings during his acceptance speech as Dean of the University of Paris.

Calvin found refuge in Switzerland along with many other exiled reformers of his day. It was in Basel that Calvin published his initial version of Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536. The initial version contained only six chapters, but would eventually grow to eighty chapters.

The Institutes of Christian Religion was distributed in France and Calvin even sent a copy to King Francis I. The book gained wide acclaim among Protestant circles, although few knew who the author was. It was destined to become a classic among Christian literature.

As Calvin was travelling through Switzerland he made an overnight stop in the city of Geneva. The city of Geneva and Calvin were destined to become synonymous, but Calvin only intended to spend the night in the city. However, a Protestant evangelist named William Farel persuaded him to stay there and help him establish the truth in Geneva. At first Calvin adamantly refused. He was not seeking and most definitely did not want a leadership role within the Protestant movement. Calvin wanted only to find quiet solitude where he could continue his writings. Farel finally pointed his finger at Calvin and rebuked him saying, “If you refuse to devote yourself with us to the work . . . God will condemn you.” Calvin stayed in Geneva.

Calvin poured all of his energies into not only studying the Word of God, but establishing a reformation society in the city of Geneva. Like the early church in the book of Acts, Calvin turned the world of the citizens of Geneva upside down. He condemned not only the false purity of the Roman Catholic church, but also the sinful living of the immoral sinners. He taught the common people on their level, so they could develop an understanding of God’s word. Calvin was very strict in only allowing those that were living according to the Word of God to participate in communion. Those that failed to live up to the Bible’s standard were excommunicated.

Not everyone appreciated the changes that Calvin was bringing to the city. In 1538, Calvin and Farel were expelled from Geneva after Calvin called the city government a “council of the devil” during one of his fiery sermons. Calvin was told that everyone had to be able to participate in communion regardless their lifestyle or he would have to leave. Calvin left rather than compromise, no doubt discouraged that his labor had yielded so little.

Back in Basel, Calvin was overcome by depression and thought of being rejected. He felt his ministry was a failure and vowed to never again to pastor a church. Although shortly thereafter while visiting the city of Strasbourg, Calvin was approached by a fellow reformer named Martin Bucer. Bucer wanted Calvin to move to Strasbourg to pastor a church of Protestant refugees from France. Calvin refused. Bucer then reproved Calvin, “God will know how to find the rebellious servant, as He found Jonah.” Once again Calvin answered the call of God for his life and moved to Strasbourg to pastor this church.

At this time Strasbourg was a hub of Reformation activity. Calvin worked hand-in-hand with fellow reformers in the city for three years. It was during this time that Calvin’s notoriety began to grow near and wide. Even the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V invited Calvin to speak on several occasions.

After Calvin had left Geneva, the Catholic Church sprung into action to try to reclaim the city for the papacy. An infamous letter was written by Cardinal Sadolet to the city council posing the question, “be more expedient for your salvation to believe and follow what the Catholic Church has approved with general consent for more than fifteen hundred years, or innovations introduced within these twenty-five years by crafty men.”

The councilmen of Geneva had no idea how to respond to Cardinal Sadolet and turned to John Calvin to pen a response. Calvin immediately brushed aside any hesitations he had about helping those who had rejected him just a few years earlier and boldly picked up the banner of the Protestant Reformation once again. His response is one of the most famous of the writings of the Reformation and is simply titled A Reply to Cardinal Sadolet. Calvin expertly refuted Sadolet’s claims.

“We deny not that those over whom you preside are churches of Christ, but we maintain that the Roman pontiff, with his whole herd of pseudo-bishops, who have seized upon the pastor’s office, are ravening wolves, whose only study has hitherto been to scatter and trample upon the kingdom of Christ, filling it with ruin and devastation. Nor are we the first to make the complaint.”

Cardinal Sadolet never answered Calvin’s response and from that point on Geneva was staunchly Protestant.

Shortly thereafter, Calvin was invited to return to Geneva. Calvin once again opposed the call to leadership, but finally agreed to go for a few months. However, Calvin was destined to spend to remainder of his life in the city of Geneva.

When Calvin returned to Geneva, neither he nor the citizens of that fair city were the same as they had been just a few short years earlier. They now welcomed Calvin with open arms and a willing heart to accept the teachings of God’s word. For Calvin’s part, he had gained in both maturity and humility during his years of exile. He set about immediately organizing not only the city of Geneva, but the Protestant faith.

It was here that Calvin was used by God to promote the theology of the Protestant Reformation. That included restoring the truths of predestination and election as the apostle Paul had taught them. These truths would become so closely associated with Calvin than for centuries later they would be referred to as Calvinism.

Calvin and Martin Luther initially held a high degree of respect for one another. However, the two great reformers eventually separated over a doctrinal issue regarding the interpretation of the eucharist.

John Calvin died on May 27, 1564 of natural causes. His followers were determined to prevent a cult worship of Calvin to develop similar to the veneration of the saints that was taking place within the Catholic church. As a result, Calvin was buried in an unmarked grave and to this day no one knows the exact location of Calvin’s grave.

Quotes

“A man will be justified by faith when, excluded from righteousness of works, he by faith lays hold of the righteousness of Christ, and clothed in it, appears in the sight of God not as a sinner, but as righteous.”

“God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation.”

“I consider looseness with words no less of a defect than looseness of the bowels.”
“It behooves us to accomplish what God requires of us, even when we are in the greatest despair respecting the results.”

“No man is excluded from calling upon God, the gate of salvation is set open unto all men: neither is there any other thing which keepeth us back from entering in, save only our own unbelief.”

“Our prayer must not be self-centered. It must arise not only because we feel our own need as a burden we must lay upon God, but also because we are so bound up in love for our fellow men that we feel their need as acutely as our own. To make intercession for men is the most powerful and practical way in which we can express our love for them.”

“There is no knowing that does not begin with knowing God.”

“We should ask God to increase our hope when it is small, awaken it when it is dormant, confirm it when it is wavering, strengthen it when it is weak, and raise it up when it is overthrown.”

Salvation Can only be Found in Christ

by Martin Luther

“…The devil does not intend to allow this testimony about Christ.  He devotes all his energy to opposing it and will not desist until he has struck it down and suppressed it.  In this respect, we humans are weak and stubbornly perverse and are more likely to become attached to saints than to Christ.  Within the papacy they have preached about the service rendered by these beloved saints, that one ought to rely on their merit.

And I, too, believed and preached thus.  St. Ann was my idol, and St. Thomas my apostle.  I patterned myself substantially after them.  Others ran to St. James and strongly believed and firmly trusted that, if they conformed, they would received all they wished and hoped for.  Prayers were said to St. Barbara and St. Christopher in order to avert an early and sudden death, and there was no uncertainty here.  So completely is man by nature bent on renouncing this testimony of John the Baptist.

For this reason it is necessary constantly to persevere and adhere to John’s testimony concerning Christ.  For it requires toil and effort to continue with word and testimony, for a person at death to be able to say, I must die, but I have a Savior concerning whom John the Baptist testifies; on him and on no other creature, either in heaven or on earth, do I rely.  However, that a person can die as cheerfully by believing in St. Barbara, in an indulgence, or in a pilgrimage to Rome, as in the man to whom alone John the Baptist points, is out of the question.  Also, that a person can build as strongly on monkery or monastery life as on holy baptism is a forlorn hope.

“What I am telling you is that it is easier for us humans to believe and trust in everything else than in the name of Christ, who alone is all in all, and more difficult for us for us to rely on him in whom and through whom we possess all things.”

Quotes are excerpted from volume five of Luther’s 7-volume set of sermons (page 79).

Why Some People Reject Jesus

By Scott Redd, Tabletalk Magazine

As an anthology, the four Gospels reveal two complementary responses to the person of Jesus Christ. Some people are inexplicably drawn to Jesus while others are just as inexplicably repelled by Him.

Philip is an example of the former. He leaves behind his livelihood to follow this itinerant preacher who beckons him to “follow me” (John 1:43). No questions. He just follows.

The crowds and disciples described in John 6:60–66 represent the latter.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. (John 6:60–66)

Having left their homes to follow Jesus and His teaching, the crowds already know that He preaches like no other rabbi and that He can handle adversity with insight and authority. They have seen Him perform miracles that defy explanation and point to deeper truths about His identity and purpose.

In spite of all of this, when they hear Jesus preach that God the Father and the Holy Spirit are integral to their coming to faith in Him, they leave in droves.

This passage deals with the inner spiritual dynamics of conversion. It is about the spiritual reality of coming to faith, the divine hand behind the act of believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Three Aspects of Conversion

From this passage, we learn about three significant aspects of conversion to Jesus Christ.

First, belief is more than swearing membership to a group. Saving faith is more than saying the right words, more than following Jesus in His teaching ministry and counting yourself as one of His disciples. The disciples who abandon Jesus in John 6 had previously given the impression that they were His followers—they had left their homes and jobs to travel with someone the religious authorities claimed was a fool, or worse, a madman. Even though they had given up so much, they were not ready for the heart of the gospel. Perhaps they accepted the teaching of Jesus the rabbi, but they did not accept the teaching of Jesus the divine Son.

Second, hypocrisy is common in gospel community, even when Jesus is the preacher. The church will always be filled with broken people, some of whom are drawn by the Spirit to repentance and faith, and others who are drawn by their sin to hardness and nominalism. Pastors and church leaders must remember that they are always preaching and teaching to a mixed audience. The best way to serve that audience is to lovingly, confidently, and prayerfully teach the whole counsel of God from the Scriptures.

Third, saving faith is the result of the Holy Spirit’s giving life more than it is the result of collecting empirical evidence. Jesus says: “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:62–63). To be sure, Christians should present the gospel in a way that is contextually sensitive, and yes, evangelists should seek to remove any offense that is not intrinsic to the gospel message. But Jesus is saying that He could take to flight before their eyes and His audience would still not believe if the Spirit did not regenerate their hearts and minds. Conversion is the work of the Spirit in attendance with gospel proclamation. Reason, experience, and imagination all play a role in salvation, but if the Spirit does not give life, saving faith will not result.

Comfort and Challenge

We should find comfort in the necessary role of the Spirit in our evangelistic efforts. Many will patiently listen to our gospel message only to politely walk away without a moment’s hesitation. We should always check our hearts and methods when this happens, but we should also remember that people walked away from Jesus as well.

We should be challenged when we realize that a person’s response to the gospel is ultimately out of our hands. Every Christian has someone in their lives who they believe could never come to saving faith. Jesus’ teaching in John 6 is proof that no one can escape the life-giving work of the Spirit if it is willed by the Father. Who are we to doubt the power of regeneration in the lives of those around us?

The Trinity and Evangelism

Last, don’t miss the Trinitarian tone of John 6 and how it helps us keep a balanced view of evangelism and salvation. No one receives the Son unless the Spirit gives life, as it is granted by the Father.

Keeping this Trinitarian foundation in view protects us from two common errors, one that sees conversion as arbitrary and the other that sees it merely as a matter of persuasion. Because the Father directly grants salvation according to His good pleasure, it is the least arbitrary of all human experiences. Because salvation relies on the regeneration of the Spirit, we know that conversion rests on something other than a well-framed sales pitch.

I’ll conclude with a third error that this Trinitarian teaching helps us avoid. Because of the revelation of the Son, we should resist the error that leads us to complacency in evangelism. In His humiliation and exaltation, the Son provided the groundwork for our redemption. As a result, for those who are in Him, there is every reason to proclaim His gospel with confidence in the light of our Trinitarian faith.

______________

Dr. Scott Redd is president and associate professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

Despicable Me: Total Depravity – TULIP Pt 1

by Clint Archer

Calvinism is a word that I believe would make John Calvin roll over in his grave. His life and ministry were marked by a passion for the centrality of the glory of God. He was so effective in showing from the Scriptures that God is central to everything, that the very concept became wedded to his name— Calvinism. But he would have called it “theocentrism.”

clip_image002[3]Calvin was born in 1509, making him eight years old when Luther nailed the 95 theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg that sparked the Reformation flame, 500 years ago this month.

We know very little about Calvin himself because, in a self-conscious effort to minimize his fame, he almost never referred to himself in any of his voluminous writings or revealed any personal details in his sermons. We do know that he possessed a brilliant mind, was fluent in five languages, published his first book at age 23, and at 27 wrote what has become arguably the most influential and respected theological work ever penned: Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Calvin believed it was his calling to proclaim the glory of God to a world that had been in ignorance of the Bible during the Dark Ages. So he worked constantly at teaching lectures and Bible studies, writing commentaries and articles, and preaching hundreds of sermons every year. He never rested from this task, contributing to his early death at age 54. His prolific output made him known as “a bow always strung.”

As is so often the case with effective instruments in God’s hands, Calvin’s life was marked with much suffering. He had tremendous and constant physical pain due to kidney stones, stomach aches, coughing fits that spat blood, migraines, gout, and hemorrhoids. He controlled the agony by eating only one, small meal a day and injecting milk into his bloodstream. One month he was so ill that he took the closest thing to sick leave he knew how—he described his convalescing this way:

Apart from the sermons and the lectures, there is a month gone by in which I have scarce done anything, in such a wise I am almost ashamed to live thus useless.”  He had delivered only twenty sermons and lectures that month!

Like his Savior, Calvin was acquainted with emotional suffering. In 1541 he married an Anabaptist widow, Idelette who had two children. In the seven years that followed he lost three babies and his wife, leaving him with two teenage step-children whom he raised as a single parent.

To give you a taste of his unshakeable trust in God’s sovereignty Calvin wrote after his first infant died:

The Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our baby son. But he is himself a father and knows best what is good for his children.”

He was banished from his Geneva on multiple occasions. He was slandered, maligned, and threatened almost daily. He was also constantly hounded by death threats and mobs gathering outside his house, firing shots. But Calvin was immovably committed to the verse by verse exposition of Scripture. He never took a break for topical studies or special occasions, including Christmas and Easter!

He wrote:

Let the pastors boldly dare all things by the word of God….Let them constrain all the power, glory, and excellence of the world to give place to and to obey the divine majesty of this word. Let them enjoin everyone by it, from the highest to the lowest. Let them edify the body of Christ. Let them devastate Satan’s reign. Let them pasture the sheep, kill the wolves, instruct and exhort the rebellious. Let them bind and loose thunder and lightning, if necessary, but let them do all according to the word of God.”

This became the standard of the Reformation.

Throughout October, each Monday, we will look at the five points of Calvinism, also called the doctrines of grace, and sometimes known by the acronym TULIP.

Today we examine the first point of five – the T in TULIP.

TOTAL DEPRAVITY or COMPLETE INABILITY of man

It is important to understand what is being claimed by the term Total Depravity. As authors David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas put it…

The adjective ‘total’ does not mean that each sinner is as totally or completely corrupt in his actions and thought as it is possible for him to be. Instead the word ‘total’ is used to indicate that the whole of man’s being has been affected by sin. The corruption extends to every part of man: his body, his soul…his mind, his will.”

So total depravity is not believing that everyone is as despicable as they can be, but that every part of the human (significantly including their reasoning, will, desires, and ability to process truth) has been tainted by original sin.

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People do restrain their behavior if they fear consequence, are educated, have been raised well, etc. While some people are incredibly evil, sadistic, murderous, others are very sweet, kind, and loving. But even in “good people” sin has tainted their thinking at some level, preventing them from coming to saving knowledge without God’s supernatural intervention.

Anything we give God is imbued with a twinge of sin. Like moneybags with ink bombs in them. When the robber opens the bag, the ink bomb stains the bills so they can be traced. Even a tiny spec of ink corrupts the cash and makes it unusable.

Westminster Confession:

Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man…is not able by his own strength to convert himself or prepare himself thereunto.

So, sin is universal in extensiveness and intensiveness: it has spread to all people, and to every part of each person.

Calvin:

Man with all his shrewdness is as stupid about understanding by himself the mysteries of God, as an ass is incapable of understanding musical harmony.

Rom 3:10-12, 14-28, 23 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one;  no one understands; [mental/spiritual ability] no one seeks [will] for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one…  “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”  “Their feet are swift to shed blood…   and the way of peace they have not known.”  “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”…  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

Rom 8: 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.

If I offered you 10 million bucks to stop speaking, it would be difficult, but possible. If I offered you 10 million bucks if you stopped thinking, you could not do it. Or if I offered you salvation if you stopped sinning, you could never do it. Why? Because sinning is in your nature.

Jer 13: 23 Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.

Jer 17:9 the heart is deceitful above all else and desperately sick, who can understand it?

If you wanted to stop sinning, what part of your being would you employ? Your heart or thinking or will.  But Jeremiah says you can’t use your heart to clean your heart. Because it is tainted by the sin too. That is like trying to wipe a spot of gravy off your sofa with an oily rag.

1 Cor 2: 14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand [complete inability] them because they are spiritually discerned.

It’s like trying to pick up cable TV without a decoder. Or play a CD on a record player. A sinner does not have the mental equipment to believe the gospel in a saving way.

What’s the APPLICATION?

When you evangelize, you don’t try to appeal to the person’s reason alone. Proof alone will never convince anyone. It is God’s power that will make them believe. We need to pray for God’s intervention.

When someone comes to Christ, we give God all the glory. We don’t congratulate them on making the right choice, we glorify God for changing their mind and heart.

We can make this world better by education and police and democracy. I agree. But we cannot make people better. Only the gospel can do that.

And that is the doctrine of Total Depravity.

Can you think of any other applications to our lives?

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Clint Archer  has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.

How the Reformers Rediscovered the Holy Spirit and True Conversion

by Sinclair Ferguson

 

Luther’s story is well known; Calvin’s less so. Luther was wrestling with the concept of the righteousness of God, and had come to hate it; Calvin had an immense thirst for a secure knowledge of God, but had not found it. While not the whole truth, there is something in the notion that Luther was looking for a gracious God while Calvin was seeking for a true and assured knowledge of him.

In Luther’s case, the ordinances of late medieval Catholicism could not “give the guilty conscience peace or wash away the stain.” In Calvin’s case, neither the Church nor the immense intellectual discipline he had displayed in his teens and early twenties, and certainly not all his acquisition of the skills of a post-medieval humanist scholar, could bring him to an assured knowledge of God.

ROMANS 1:16

For all the differences in their backgrounds, educations, dispositions, and personalities, a good case can be made for thinking that Romans 1:16ff played a crucial role in the conversion narratives of both these reformers. We know that Luther wrestled hard with the meaning of Romans 1:16–17. He came to hate the words, finding in them an insoluble conundrum. How can “the righteousness of God” be constitutive of the good news of which Paul was so unashamed? Luther felt keenly that all it did was to damn him.

But then, as he later wrote, his eyes were opened. He had, as it were, been blind while reading the text; he had seen the words, he had not grasped their meaning. Now he saw that this righteousness was the righteousness of God by which the sinner is justified. The gates of paradise swung open; he felt himself to be born again.

Calvin seems to have been deeply affected by the verses that follow in Romans 1:18ff on the knowledge of God revealed, possessed, repressed, exchanged for idolatry, and ultimately abandoned by humanity—with faith in Jesus Christ as the alone path back to knowing God. Certainly, Ford Lewis Battles, the translator of the final Latin edition (1559) of Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion thought so. I am inclined to agree, given the tenor of Calvin’s theology and its constant focus on knowing God the Father through the Son and by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

WHAT WAS THE REFORMATION ABOUT?

If asked, most of us might instinctively say that the Reformation was about justification or about (the later coined) sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura, solus Christus, and soli Deo Gloria. But in fact, it was about much more.

For none of these five solas exists in isolation from the others or more especially in isolation from the Holy Spirit. He is the sine qua non of each. Thus, the Reformation was a rediscovery of the Holy Spirit. Calvin, as B.B. Warfield famously remarked, was “the theologian of the Holy Spirit.” Faith is not born in us apart from the Spirit. Grace saves and keeps, but it is not a substance received by us but the disposition of God toward us that is made known to us only through the Spirit. The Scriptures come to us from the mouth of God, as the Spirit breathes out the Word of God through human authors. Furthermore, as Calvin stressed, all that Christ has done for us is of no value to us unless we are united to him—and this takes place through the Spirit. He thus brings glory to the Father and the Son.

What then did the Reformers discover? Luther’s references to the Spirit, like most of his theology, are not found tidily packed in their own separate compartment. Calvin comes nearer to a systematic presentation in The Institutes. But both made a simple but monumental discovery.

A REDISCOVERY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

Increasingly over the centuries, the Church had usurped the role of the Holy Spirit in the economy of salvation. The most obvious indication of that emerged in the way—indeed quasi-physical way—grace and salvation were mediated to the individual through the sacraments. In a sense, for all practical purposes, salvation was locked up in the sacraments—with the keys kept safely in the pockets of the priests and prelates of the Church.

The consequences of this were theologically and existentially disastrous. The role of the Spirit had been usurped; his authority was sequestered by the priesthood. Consequently, instead of experiencing assurance of forgiveness and personal knowledge of God, both of which are the birth right of every true child of God, members of the Church were kept in doubt and suspense about their salvation. As Luther saw, they were being urged to build up righteousness with the aid of the sacraments, so that, perhaps, they just might develop a faith so suffused with perfect love that they would have become justifiable.

This was the medieval doctrine of “heaven helps those who help themselves,” the justification of those who have been made just, the justification of the righteous-by-sacramental cooperation. While the system enabled the Church to claim this justification was “by grace,” this grace was never “alone.” It required co-operation and progress. But how could people be sure they had “done enough”? No one could be sanguine about his or her salvation. How could they be?

It was just here, for Luther and Calvin, that the Holy Spirit entered, opening eyes to the fact that all our salvation and every part of it is found in Christ alone (as Calvin loved to say); here the Holy Spirit entered, opening blind eyes, melting hardened affections, and drawing forth the response of saving faith.

No wonder Luther felt himself born again, and that “the Gates of Paradise had been flung open.”

No wonder, if Calvin experienced his “sudden” or “unexpected” conversion when he realized the Church had taught him “knowledge falsely so-called.” She had wrongly interposed herself between the believer and Christ. But then the Spirit came and Calvin discovered that every part of salvation is found in Christ alone.

No wonder then, that John Knox said the explanation for the Reformation was that God gave the Holy Spirit to ordinary men in great abundance.

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Sinclair Ferguson is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.