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.

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.

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners – John Bunyan

Found out you can listen to the entore book on a single 50 mile bike. I started when I left the house this morning and the book was finshed at about the 40 mile mark. Avweage speed 12 – 13 MPH.

It was my ‘birthday ride’. Turning 68 in about a week.

Here’s the link to listen:

https://librivox.org/search?q=grace%20abounding&search_form=advanced

On Christian Behavior Toward Christians

This came to me by way of a friend:

“Oh that Christians would learn to censure less and pray more and instead of speaking OF one another speak more TO one another and one FOR another…. But now the tender praying, healing, restoring spirit is departed and if Christians stir not up themselves to call it back again it is a sad sign that God is departing….

  • We judge before we inquire.
  • We reject before we admonish.
  • We conclude vain assumptions upon our brethren before we come to them as Christians and fellow members.

We think this well becomes us as we take a kind of pride and contentment in it, but oh to inform, to convince, to exhort, to pray, this is to act like the disciples of Christ. This is to show ourselves Christians in deed, professors not of the letter but of the spirit that would gain our brothers instead of blasting them.”

– Thomas Case (1598-1862)

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – Jesus

Why do we do this?

I have a serious question.

Have you heard anyone beginning a testimony with anything like ‘Ever since I repented of my sin and believed in Christ. . .’?

I haven’t, not lately. They always begin with somethimg like:

‘Since I gave my heart to Jesus. . .’

‘Since I accepted Jesus. . .’

‘Since I received Christ. . .’

‘Since I chose Christ. . .’

Why is that?