Deadly Doctrine: Divorcing Spirit & Truth – DEFINING DECEPTION
– This was first posted in December 2012
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:18-21 ESV)
I love these few words that the angel of the lord spoke to Joseph:
“for he will save his people from their sins.”
The grand announcement concerning Jesus’ birth, at least to Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, was that the purpose of this miraculous birth was that the Christ child was born to ‘save His people from their sins’.
We don’t often hear modern evangelical sermons in which salvation from sin was the reason for the birth of Jesus – at least I can’t remember a specific Christmas sermon that addressed that as its main point. But then again I’m old enough to have more frequent memory lapses than say 20 or so years ago. However, I could also offer that the subject and problem of sin itself is not seriously mentioned, if at all, in many mega-churches these days, on any given Sunday (or any other time)
I am not saying that we should overly emphasize the issue of sin as we celebrate the birth of Christ, but I do suggest that the angel’s words to Joseph at least remain in our hearts and minds in the midst of celebrating the birth of our Savior in all of our usual ways, and especially when we gaze upon a Nativity scene.
Admit it, we love Nativity scenes and the sight of Jesus in the manger, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, wise men, and often angels in the background. Thoughts of ‘peace on earth’, feelings of warmth, love and good cheer fill our minds and hearts – and rightly so.
But how many of us dare to dwell, even for a few moments, on the angel’s words to Joseph:
“for he will save his people from their sins.”
This year, I for one am dwelling on those words, perhaps more than anything else; not in a morbid way, with graphic pictures of Calvary and the Cross, but with a sense of wonder and awe. Jesus came, first and foremost, to save his people from their sins.
And while all those who witnessed the birth of Jesus so long ago might not have realized the full significance of His birth, God, His Father, knew exactly the course that was being set in motion on that day. The Father knew that one day His Son would be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified, buried, and be raised up again – that The Father sent his Son to die for the sins of men.
So in the midst of all of the usual activity this season brings, I spend some time reflecting on the words of the angel to Joseph and their enormous significance as the greatest gift ever given to men – salvation from our sins. Unlike Joseph, who had no way of knowing all that those words meant, I peer into the pages of my Bible and reflect on a few of seemingly simple questions:
- Who really are ‘His people’?
- What does it mean that He would save them from their sins?
- How does discovering answers to those questions impact how I celebrate this wondrous season of the year?
Dear reader, if you are reading the musings of this old soldier, my encouragement to you is to do the same. You will be tremendously blessed!
May you indeed have a Merry and Blessed Christmas!
Al Mohler, December 8, 2017
Many Christians would be surprised, and perhaps even disappointed, to learn that the song often cited as our favorite Christmas carol is not actually a Christmas carol at all. The famed hymn writer Isaac Watts published “Joy to the World” in 1719. Millions of Christians sing this great hymn at Christmas, celebrating the great news of the incarnation and declaring “let earth receive her king.”
“Let every heart, prepare him room, and heaven and angels sing.” At Christmas we celebrate the incarnation of Christ, the coming of Jesus in Bethlehem. But “Joy to the World,” though sung rightly and triumphantly at Christmas, is really about the Second Coming of Christ.
Watts led in the development of hymns in the English tradition, drawing many of his hymn texts directly from the Psalms. “Joy to the World” is based upon Psalm 98, which declares creation’s joy when the Lord comes to rule and to judge. When we sing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come,” it applies when we talk about Bethlehem and when we rejoice in the gift of the infant Christ. But the song also reminds us that Christmas isn’t over; the promises of Christmas are not yet fulfilled. Earth will fully receive her King when Christ comes again, to reign and to rule.
Think with me about verse three of the hymn, in which we read,
“No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found.”
The reversal of the curse is promised in the coming of the Messiah and the fulfillment of his atoning work. Implicit in this third verse is the promise of the new creation. We live in light of that promise, even as we look back to Bethlehem and as we celebrate Christmas.
But look carefully at the reference to the curse. Christ’s victory over sin is declared to extend “far as the curse is found.” What curse? How far does it extend? Where is it found?
We find the curse in Genesis, chapter 3. After Eve has eaten of the forbidden tree, and then Adam also ate, and after they found themselves facing God in the reality of their sin, God first cursed the serpent:
The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
Then, God cursed the woman:
To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”
Then came to curse to Adam, and through Adam to all humanity:
And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
By Adam, our federal head, the curse of sin came upon all humanity. We are dust, who must return to the dust, for the wages of sin is death. All creation is under the effects of the curse. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” Adam is told.
The curse is God’s righteous judgment of sin, and the effect of the curse is death. The curse has fallen upon all human beings, first because of Adam’s sin and then because of our own. In Adam, we all sinned. In Adam, we all died.
Where is the curse found? Everywhere we look, we see the curse and its malignant effects. How far does it extend? To every atom and molecule of creation — from coast to coast, shore to shore, sky to sky, and to every square inch of the planet. That’s how far the curse is found.
Most importantly, every single human being is found under this curse. “For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
So, how can we sing about joy to the world?
Look with me to Galatians 3:10-14:
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
Here is the gospel of Christ, the good news. But first, the bad news. All who rely on works of the law are under a curse. All humanity is born under this curse, and under the law. The congregation that originally received Paul’s letter would have understood immediately where Paul grounded his argument, in Deuteronomy 27 and 28. At the end of the series of curses God delivered from Mount Nebo, we find the most comprehensive of all: “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” [Paul in Galatians 3:10, citing Deuteronomy 27:26]
We are born under the curse, we are cursed by the curse, and the law offers no escape. We cannot work our way from under the curse.
So where is the good news? Where is joy to the world? Look at verses 13 and 14.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. What we sinners could not and cannot do for ourselves, Christ has done for us. He removes the curse and the power of the law to condemn us.
How? He redeemed us from the curse by becoming a curse for us. The sinless Son of God became incarnate as the Word became flesh and dwelled among us. That sinless Son of God became sin for us, in order that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). He became a curse for us, by hanging on a tree, in fulfillment of Scripture.
Christ died on the cross, in our place, bearing our shame and guilt, paying the full penalty for our sin, dying as our Substitute, in our place, by his shed blood. He redeemed us from the curse by becoming a curse for us. He died our death, in our place, bearing our sins, redeeming us from the curse. And on the third day the Father raised him from the dead. The cursed and crucified Savior rose victorious from the grave.
Paul concludes that all this took place so that in Christ the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, and so that we, as Christians, might receive the promised Holy Spirit through faith.
Today we celebrate commencement, the graduation of ministers of Jesus Christ who now enter into a new season of service to the church and to the gospel. The main contours of the ceremony would be recognizable to almost anyone. Here you see graduates, diplomas, faculty, academic regalia, dignity, proud loved ones. But this is a distinctively Christian service. This is an academic ceremony, but it is a Christian service of worship.
These graduates are one of the most remarkable sights you will ever see. Who gets to observe such a moment as this, looking at newly minted ministers of Christ and knowing that they are soon to be deployed to the church and to the ends of the earth? No school is worthy of them, and not one of them is worthy of their calling. Everything you observe is by grace, and to the glory of God.
Graduates, you are wearing the gowns of academic and ministry preparation. You will soon hold diplomas as evidence of your seriousness of preparation and devotion to the ministry. You are surrounded by a host of friends and family and faculty. Their own hopes and dreams of ministry go with you and in you. This faculty has taught you with conviction and affection, and now you go to bear the gospel of Christ and to preach the Word.
Why? Because the world is full of sinners who live every day under the curse, and the penalty of the curse is death. You go to preach the gospel and to declare salvation to all who believe in Christ and repent of their sin. You go to feed Christ’s flock and to shepherd the church for whom Christ died.
How far does the gospel reach, and to what lengths must it be taken? Far as the curse is found. Go and preach. Go and tell. Teach the good news that Christ has redeemed us from the curse by becoming a curse for us.
Joy to the world! The Lord is come.
No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found.
And so, prayerfully and proudly, we send you out — ministers of Christ, heralds of the gospel, far as the curse is found.
This is the text of the commencement address preached by President R. Albert Mohler, Jr. at the December 8, 2017 commencement ceremony at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. The entire ceremony will be live-streamed by digital video broadcast beginning at 10:00 a.m. EST at www.sbts.edu/live
I recently preached 2 Corinthians 4:5 (“We do not breach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord”), and in preparation I came across this powerful list of 8 implications of preaching Jesus as Lord. These are from Murray Harris’s New International Greek Testament Commentary (p 332), where he writes:
Whenever worshiping Christians repeat the church’s confession “Jesus is Lord,” they are:
1. Implying that the Christ of faith was none other than the Jesus of history (Acts 2:34–36),
4. affirming the triumph of Christ over death and hostile cosmic powers when God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9; 14:9; Eph. 1:20–22; Col. 2:10, 15) and therefore also the Christian’s hope of resurrection (1 Cor. 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:14),
It is good to be reminded that “Lord” is more than a title, and more than a name. It reveals the identity of Jesus, and compels a response from us that is more than simply a phrase we say–ie. there is more at stake here than saying “Jesus is Lord.” That phrase implies so much, that when rightly understood it alters our worldview.
Contributed to Pulpit and Pen P. E. Harris
Through many years of pastoral ministry, I have encountered many so-called evangelical Christians who do not believe in speaking about their faith. Many of them have bought into the philosophy that Christians should only witness Jesus Christ to people by their lifestyle. The mantra of these people goes like this, “You should be a witness for Jesus Christ and maybe even have to speak about it.” Many in the church today would agree with this statement. They believe that somehow through osmosis people get saved when they see Christians just being themselves. I have even heard testimonies by Christians who claimed to have won people to Christ without a spoken word. And yet, in 30 years I have never run into anyone who said that was how they got saved. Lifestyle evangelism is just an excuse to be silent about Christ. This philosophy is contrary to the express teachings of Jesus Christ who said, “… go into all nations and preach the Gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15) And, “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before my Father in Heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in Heaven.” (Matthew 10:32-33)
The reason people like lifestyle evangelism is because it makes them feel safe. They never have to confront people about sin. They never have to stand up for righteousness. In certain crowds, they can always be spiritually ambiguous so as not to offend. They never have to face rejection and ridicule. They just live their “Christian” lives and keep their opinions to themselves. A close cousin of lifestyle evangelism is the Joel Osteen positive only Christianity. People know there is little risk of offense if you only speak positive and encouraging things. This safety issue is one of the reasons for the popularity of Mr. Osteen. In Osteen’s church, you can be a “Christian” without counting the cost of discipleship. And you never have to worry about having a contrary opinion with other people. You never have to worry that your message will offend anyone. You never have to bring up the subjects of sin and rebellion. Because all you do is encourage people to find health, wealth and prosperity in the promises of Jesus. No muss, no fuss, no confrontation, no persecution by the world. Just believe the myth that as long as you focus on improving yourself and finding your own purpose, the glow of your positive light will attract other people.
However, there is a major flaw with this philosophy. This is a Christianity who’s true light is hidden under a basket. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not just a positive message of God’s gifts and promises. The Gospel is first a negative message convicting people of sin. This conviction leads to repentance and contrition before people can ever receive the positive promises of God. The ministry of the Gospel is not just positive light, it is first and foremost confrontational salt. As Jesus Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lamp-stand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:11-16) Notice how the reference to salt is connected to people who are persecuted for righteousness sake. Salt is a metaphor about people speaking up for the truth and righteousness of God. Notice also that salt comes before the light in the passage.
Before refrigeration, salt was indispensable to fight the bacteria that would cause food poisoning. If you went to the meat market the only choice you had was meat left outdoors, usually covered with flies. Eating meat is a very positive and healthy thing. But only a fool would try to eat unrefrigerated meat without first salting it before it was cooked. The use of salt rubbed into the meat kills off the corrupting influence of insect larvae, viruses, and bacteria. Even today it is recommended to give turkey a salt rub before cooking it to prevent salmonella. Salt also has the power to clean wounds and to prevent infection. The ancients commonly used salt as a medicinal cure. But needless to say, salt in a wound is a mighty powerful irritant. It stings, but it heals. Being salt in a spiritual sense means you are an irritant to people trapped in sin and worldliness. Just as salt stings when it confronts an infected wound, so does true preaching of repentance sting prior to salvation. The authentic Gospel stings the heart of sinful, worldly and lost people. And yet, without the medicine of Gospel-salt people cannot be healed, forgiven or set free by the blood of Christ. Being salt with flavor means you actually have to speak negative truth to lost souls in order to bring them to the positive aspects of deliverance and salvation. Being salt means you have to confront the corroding bacteria of false doctrine in the world and in the church. Being salt means you have become a true disciple of Jesus Christ. It means you must be willing to sacrifice yourself and suffer possible persecution for the sake of the genuine salvation of souls.
Before Lucifer fell and became Satan his name meant light-bearer. Presently the church is crammed full of useless positive light-bearers. This is Lucifer’s plan to turn Christians into half-truth positive only speakers so the true and complete Gospel never gets out. He wants us to bring light without salt, and he has been wildly successful. This work of Satan is all about deceiving souls because the half-truths of the positive Gospel are in reality the complete lies of the Evil One. Because of the popularity of the false positive Gospel throughout the world, the real church has a severe shortage of salt-bearers. Men and women who are willing to risk, confront and speak the truth necessary so people can be authentically saved. What the church and world need more than ever is full disciples of Jesus Christ who boldly proclaim both the salt and the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ’s substitutionary atonement and God’s grace to save.
[Contributed by P. E. Harris]
P.E. Harris has been a Christan pastor, teacher, and lecturer for 30 years. He and his wife Aloma live in Southern California. The Harris’ have 5 children and 8 grandchildren. Mr. Harris’ two books will be available in 2018. Christian Fiction: Royal Rodger and the Great King: And Christian Non-Fiction: Anchors of Salvation
When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, 500 years ago this week, he probably had no idea what forces he was unleashing. Although his intention was to spur reform within the Catholic Church rather than breaking off and starting a new church, he ended up accomplishing both.
In fact, the Reformation started by Luther set in motion an awakening that stimulated an unusual concentration of human genius and extraordinary wisdom that would culminate in the birth of a new nation — one unprecedented in human history, dedicated to upholding its citizens’ unalienable rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. If there had been no Reformation, there would be no United States as we know it today.
American history from the very beginning — with the Anglicans settling Virginia, the Puritans and Presbyterians settling in New England, the Reformed Dutch settling in New York, and the Quakers settling Pennsylvania to name a few — is inextricably linked to the Protestant Reformation. To understand the relevance of the Reformation, let’s revisit its core ideas and central figures and assess what is happening today.
The drama starts with Luther, who after being expelled from the Catholic Church, stood trial, and stated publicly that it was wrong for anyone to act against his conscience in religious matters. In addition, Luther introduced the radical notion of human equality in a “priesthood of all believers.” With obedience to authority and class stratification having been the norm for most of recorded history, Luther appeared to be either a fool or a subversive for proclaiming that liberty of conscience and equality of all believers, regardless of class, was the proper basis for religious and political life.
After Luther, it was John Calvin of Geneva who contributed the most to advancing the depth and breadth of the Reformation. Calvin’s “resistance theory,” which justified the people’s right to disobey unjust rule, would later find expression in the Declaration of Independence. A majority of America’s Founding Fathers had read and probably memorized a brief summary of Calvin’s theology contained in the Westminster Catechism because in those days it was part of the curriculum of almost every school. Calvin’s most important work, the multi-volume Institutes of Christian Religion, was cited by John Adams, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison in their correspondence and deliberations over the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.
After the American colonies won the war of independence from Britain, the real work of forming an effective government for the United States began with the Constitutional Convention of 1787. That was no easy task for the 55 delegates who convened in the midst of a depressed economy, rampant inflation of the Continental dollar, territorial threats, and even talk of secession by New England.
By today’s standards, it was nothing short of a miracle that the convention delegates could muster the tolerance and big-mindedness to agree on substantive terms of the new Constitution in just four months. But as good as that Constitution was (and is), it had to be ratified by the states to become the law of the land. Fear of corruption and abuse of power from a central government caused several key states to withhold support until the Constitution was amended with a Bill of Rights – starting with the all-important First Amendment of protecting and tolerating freedom of speech, press and religion.
This being the 500th anniversary of the Reformation it’s appropriate to reflect on the present state of those freedoms embodied in the First Amendment.
In the last thirty years, America’s culture has been progressively enveloped by “political correctness” — which restricts discussion to stereotypes and requires that all social and political reality be seen through a particular “lens.” The politically-correct agenda has been advanced by manipulating the meaning of language, while it has also been helped by a public conditioned to ignore reality and common sense and accept distorted and even false narratives.
Because political correctness narrows the range of political thought, its adherents tend to be intolerant — seeking to shut down and silence people with whom they disagree on college campuses across the country, clamoring for removal of historic statues and monuments, and even demanding that people with opposing views on such subjects as climate change and gay marriage be silenced, fined, or arrested.
Today’s problems are also compounded by social media, which has many benefits, but also tend to promote groupthink conformity that marginalizes and silences opposing and independent voices. Because most people avoid inviting criticism, denouncement or being bullied, there is a “spiral of silence” on social media, which reinforces the default groupthink of what is trending and what appears to be the social and cultural majority.
As we survey the popular culture in America today, we get a sense that the Reformation that ushered in an unprecedented appreciation of both freedom and equality, as well as a deeper and more personal relationship with God the Father, has not completed its destiny. Indeed, in the last two or three generations there has been a significant regression of some of the Reformation principles and basic common sense that was endowed by God the Creator, both of which flourished in early America.
History shows that the great leaps forward in progress were almost always spurred by individuals who had original ideas and the courage to challenge the assumptions and stereotypes of their times. May this 500th anniversary of the Reformation be an occasion to commit to a spiritual revival and a renewed passion to protect our nation’s freedoms and rekindle the liberty of conscience that elevates tolerance, original thinking, courage and character.
Scott Powell is senior fellow at Discovery Institute in Seattle. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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.