Thursday, February 03, 2011

Luther's Fight for Recovering the Gospel
At the heart of everything Martin Luther (1483-1546) did as a reformer, it was fighting for the recovery of the Gospel. For Luther, this is what the Protestant Reformation was all about. Despite all the abuses and corruption which the Catholic Church was riddled with during the 16th century, Luther's ultimate battle with Rome was theological. Roman Catholicism had sabotaged the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Luther therefore made it his lifelong mission to recover the Gospel which Catholicism had buried underneath her man-made traditions and her system of a works-righteousness salvation.
This recovery effort was brought forth in several ways: first and foremost, it was by Luther's translation of the Bible in the German language. The New Testament was completed in 1522 and the Old Testament was brought forth ten years later in 1532. This one acheivement sealed the Reformation for Germany by placing God's Word in the hands of the common people to read in their own language. And of course by giving the people a vernacular Bible, no one in Germany would be barred from reading the Gospel for themselves.
Secondly, Luther's fight to recover the Gospel took shape in his influence as a Bible professor, pastor, and mentor for the next generation. This can be seen in the production of Luther's Small Catechism (1529) which would explain the theology of the Bible and Gospel for children. And also there was the enormous affect Luther had on his university students by what would be called his "Table Talk." These were informal discussions and exhortations Luther would give his students and other guests who would gather around the dinner table in Luther's home. Through these "talks" Luther took great advantage to unpack the Gospel and shepherd the impressionable and hungry hearts who sat at his table.
Thirdly, Luther's fight to recover the Gospel certainly took its greatest shape in the form of preaching. The act of preaching was central to the Reformation since the Reformation gave centrality to the sermon. As Roland Bainton said of Luther: "The pulpit was higher than the altar, for Luther held that salvation is through the Word and without the Word the elements are devoid of sacramental quality, but the Word is sterile unless it is spoken." And for Luther, he took this conviction to heart. From the years 1522 to his death in 1546, Luther preached some 6,000 sermons. He believed firmly that "faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God" (Rom.10:17).
Finally, next to preaching the Gospel, Luther also gave his labors to writing and publishing books that would work to spread the Gospel as well. And without question, this is where Luther's Gospel recovery efforts would have their longest lasting effects. For once Luther's physical voice was silenced in 1546, his written voice would keep fighting to reestablish the Gospel for future generations. But of everything Luther penned for this purpose, there would be no book more prized and revered for recovering the Gospel, than Luther's forceful, theological reply to Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) in 1525.
Originally titled in Latin as De Servo Arbitrio (which translated means "On the Enslaved Will") - we have come to know this book by its more popular title, The Bondage of the Will. Luther himself regarded this book as the only book of two that he wished to be preserved. The other book for preservation was The Small Catechism. But outside of these two books, Luther said you could burn everything else he wrote.
So by the mere fact that Luther would esteem The Bondage of the Will as holding that much importance in comparison to the rest of his writings (which fill 55 volumes in the English edition and 127 in German) - it would serve us well to know what this book was about and why it was written. Because in truth, The Bondage of the Will actually crystallizes Luther's fight for recovering the Gospel in written form with greater clarity than anything he ever wrote. Regarding its place of importance among all the books written by the Protestant Reformers, B.B. Warfield (1851-1921) called The Bondage of the Will "the manifesto of the Reformation." He then went on to say:
"It is the embodiment of Luther's reformation conceptions, the nearest to a systematic statement of them he ever made. It is the first exposition of the fundamental ideas of the Reformation in comprehensive form."
Now as already mentioned, The Bondage of the Will was a personal reply that Luther had made to the famed Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus. At that time in European history, there was no one who could rival Erasmus in reading and writing the classical tongues. His greatest gift to that age (and even to the church) was his reproduction of the Greek New Testament. Luther himself felt great indebtedness to Erasmus for this publication. And in addition to this work as a scholar, Erasmus also sought to reform the Catholic church. He was repulsed at the abuses and corruption he witnessed in every part of Medieval Catholicism.
But the vision of reform for Erasmus was poles apart from Luther. Erasmus was not a theologian. In fact, he detested theology. For him, a reformation in the Catholic church was a Christianity without Christ. It was nothing more than "a bald moralism", which said: "Be good and all will be well with you." Erasmus therefore saw nothing wrong with the doctrine of Catholicism. He applauded its high and impossible system of works-righteousness salvation.
Luther however, standing firmly against Rome's doctrine of salvation, was also at odds with Erasmus. But these two men had not drawn swords over this issue until 1524. After must pressure from popes and princes, Erasmus reluctantly wrote his first and only attack against Luther. It was a small book he simply entitled, A Discussion Concerning Free-Will. Surprisingly, despite all the subjects he could have chosen to rebut Luther on, Erasmus took the heart of Luther's doctrine as the battle-ground.
For Luther though, he could not have been more pleased. In his reply to Erasmus (which came a year later), he actually thanked him for "attacking the real thing...the essential issue." And that "essential issue" was the nature of salvation as it related to human freedom. There was no subject more important for Luther than this. As far as he was concerned this matter was the centerpiece of the Reformation because it struck at the heart of the Gospel. Luther's reply therefore to Erasmus would be nothing less than a strong, thorough, dogmatic exposition regarding the biblical doctrine of salvation. What Luther would labor to do with all zeal, was to defend "the absolute exclusion of works from salvation, and the casting of the soul wholly upon the grace of God."
You see, for Erasmus, his idea of salvation was nothing more than a regurgitation of both Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian doctrine. While Erasmus strongly maintained that he believed salvation was by God's grace yet he would not concede it was by grace alone. Man must play some part and make some contribution to salvation, however small it may be. And for Erasmus, man's contribution was in his freedom to make the final decision as to whether God would save him or not. In other words, though man was a sinner yet his sinfulness did not impair his ability to apply himself to those things which would lead to salvation. In short, God may provide salvation but it was man's "free will" that makes it happen.
Luther was neither impressed nor convinced by the eloquence of Erasmus' words. In fact, Luther compared Erasmus' book to that of using gold and silver plates to carry feces! Luther's point was that the Erasmian gospel of Free Will was worthless and abominating, since it called no man to see his total helplessness as a sinner to merit salvation; and in turn, would not point men to the sole efficiency of God's grace to save. For Luther, nothing could be worse for sinners to hear than a message like this.
Moreover, Luther called Erasmus' "free will" nothing but a "pure fiction." The only thing man is free to do is "build houses, milk cows" and sin. But left to himself, Luther contended, no sinner would ever strive after God since they are completely ignorant of Him, paying Him no regard whatsoever, bound up in a corrupt sinful nature. Furthermore, in our sinfulness, Luther maintained we would not even know we're sinners unless the Spirit of God convicted us of our sin. So rather than celebrating human freedom like Erasmus, Luther declared that man's freedom as a sinner only reveals his desperation and need to be saved. Therefore, since man in his sin has no power in himself to do any good that would merit salvation, then he must be exclusively dependent on God's grace alone in Christ alone if he would be truly saved.
Articulating this truth to Erasmus (which is the Gospel in a nutshell), Luther essentially gave his greatest fight for recovering the Gospel. For this was not some academic debate between two scholars. This was a battle for preserving and propagating the only message that will redeem sinful man. In fact, even throughout Luther's reply to Erasmus, he made personal evangelistic appeals to the humanist scholar. Luther wasn't trying to win an argument he was seeking to unpack with the greatest clarity the only way sinners can be saved - and Erasmus unwittingly gave Luther the platform upon which to do so. Some years after Luther wrote The Bondage of the Will, he recalled in one of his many "Table Talks" what was at the core of the controversy, which he declared would always be the stand he would take:
"Free will brought us sin and death...Every part of us suffers corruption. So my position is this. Anyone who thinks that by free will he can do anything says 'no' to Christ. I have always taken this position in my writings, especially against Erasmus, one of the world's most learned scholars. I stand resolutely by my thesis because I know it is true. I will stand by it even if all the world opposes it. Divine truth stands."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Always Be at it!
Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? Do not take a day off from this work; always be killing sin or it will be killing you. We must strike it as an enemy until it ceases living. Sin is laboring to bring forth the deeds of the flesh. When sin lets us alone, we may let sin alone. Sin is active when it seems to be the most quiet, and its waters are often deep when they are calm. Sin is always acting, conceiving, seducing and tempting. There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled. There is no safety but in a constant warfare from sin's perplexing rebellion.
Sin will not only be striving, acting, rebelling, troubling, and disquieting if not continually mortified, it will also bring forth great, cursed, scandalous, and soul-destroying sins (Gal.5:19-20). When sin rises to tempt, it always seeks to express itself in the extreme. Every unclean thought would be adultery if it could; every covetous desire would be oppression; and every thought of unbelief would be atheism.
It is like the grave that is never satisfied. Sin's advance blinds the soul from seeing its drift from God. The soul becomes indifferent to sin as it continues to grow. The growth of sin has no boundaries but the utter denial of God and opposition to him. Sin proceeds higher by degrees; it hardens the heart as it advances.
Mortification withers the root and strikes at the head of sin every hour. The best saints in the world are in danger of a fall if found negligent in this important duty. Negligence of this duty decays the inner man instead of renewing him. It is our duty to be "bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1), and every day to be growing in grace (I Pet. 2:2), and seeking to be renewed in the inner nature day by day (2 Cor. 4:16).
(From The Works of John Owen: volume six; published by Banner of Truth Trust: pages 9-14)

Thursday, January 06, 2011

A Puritan Prayer for True Christianity
Lord of Heaven,
Thy goodness is inexpressible and inconceivable.
In the works of creation thou art almighty,
In the dispensations of providence all-wise,
In the gospel of grace all love,
And in thy Son thou hast provided for
our deliverance from the effects of sin,
the justification of our persons,
the sanctification of our natures,
the perseverance of our souls in the path of life.
Though exposed to the terrors of thy law,
we have a refuge, from the storm;
Though compelled to cry, "Unclean,"
we have a fountain for sin;
Though creature-cells of emptiness
we have a fullness accessible to all,
and incapable of reduction.
Grant us always to know that to walk with Jesus
makes other interests a shadow and a dream.
Keep us from intermittent attention to eternal things;
Save us from the delusion of those
who fail to go far in religion,
who are concerned but not converted,
who have another heart but not a new one,
who have light, zeal, confidence, but not Christ.
Let us judge our Christianity, not only by our dependence upon Jesus,
but by our love to him,
our conformity to him,
our knowledge to him.
Give us a religion that is both real and progressive,
that holds on its way and grows stronger,
that lives and works in the Spirit,
that profits by every correction,
and is injured by no carnal indulgence.

(from "The Valley of Vision"; published by Banner of Truth Trust: page 215)

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Living Under Grace
One of the most significant biblical concepts that revolutionized my thinking as a Christian was understanding the difference between the indicatives and imperatives of the Gospel. The "indicatives" of the Gospel are those statements which tell us what God has done for us in Christ, and what has happened to us as the result. For instance, in 2 Corinthians 5:17 & 21, we're told: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come...For our sake he made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." In each of these declarations we are given the facts of what God has done to save us in Christ, and the consequence of that saving work in our lives. These are the Gospel indicatives.
The "imperatives" of the Gospel however, are the commands which tell us what to do now that we're saved. Hence, in Colossians 3:12-13, we are commanded to "put on...compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive."
Now what is vitally important to understand about the indicatives and imperatives of the Gospel, is the order in which they are placed in Scripture. The indicatives always come before the imperatives. This is why, for example, we see in Paul's letter to the Ephesians, that he devotes the first three chapters to what God has done to save them (indicatives); and then the last three chapters to how they are to live since they are saved (imperatives). One crucial point of keeping indicatives before imperatives helps us to see how it is even possible that we're able to live in the manner God has set forth. It is only due to the fact that God has redeemed us by Christ, giving us a new nature, and has sent the Holy Spirit to indwell us that we can live holy lives which glorify God.
In Romans 6:14, we have a Gospel indicative which is meant to encourage us in our fight against sin and service to God (cf. Rom.6:12-13). In my last two posts I have sought to unpack this indicative by showing how it expresses two principle truths in relation to our Christian life: first, Romans 6:14 establishes our assurance for persevering in sanctification. This assurance is stated by proclaiming that "sin will have no dominion over you." Here is a glorious Gospel fact! The rule and reign of sin has been forever broken over the believer in Christ. This one truth promises a Christian that he will persevere to the very end.
The second principle truth of the Christian life in Romans 6:14, is where we're continuing to camp out even in this present post: it is our permanent position for the perseverance. "...since you are not under law but under grace." As we live the Christian life from day to day with the massive fact of sin's dominion having ceased to enslave us; we do so, with the understanding that our position is no longer under law but under grace. By not being under law (as we saw in the previous post), we are not under the law's curse and condemnation. When we were slaves to sin, all the law could do was to confirm that bondage and judge us accordingly. While the law shows us what God requires for a righteous life, it cannot give us the power to live it nor save us from our sin which keeps us from such a life.
But thanks to be God that we're no longer under law in this way. Rather, by God's redeeming power in Christ, the permanent position of all His people is under grace. What does this mean? The answer to this question is actually a summation of everything the apostle Paul had written from Romans 3 to the first half of Romans 6. First of all, to be under grace is to be in a position before God where He has justified us on account of what Christ has done to save us and bring us to God (3:21-5:1). We're also now in God's favor, at peace with God, and reconciled to Him (5:2-11). Furthermore, to be under grace, is to be in a position where we are no longer in Adam but we're now in Christ - thus, we're no longer classified as sinners but are now classified as saints (5:12-19). Moreover, since we are under grace, we have died to our old life in Adam, having been enslaved to the power of sin (6:1-7). Under grace has further placed us all in spiritual union with Christ (6:3-5, 8-11). So, we have a new life then to live under grace which opposes sin and serves God (6:12-13). All these Gospel facts confirm us as under grace.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Not Under Law
Musing on the great truth that "sin will have no dominion over you" - John Murray (1898-1975) observed:
"Sin does not rule in the believer. To think so is to deny the lordship which belongs to Christ by reason of his death and resurrection. And just as the deliverance from the power of sin is decisive, so it is inclusive. If the believer were under the dominion of any sin, then the truth of the proposition 'sin shall have no dominion over you' would be abrogated. The deliverance in view must therefore apply to all sin, and the inescapable inference is that the sin he commits does not have the dominion over him. Sin as indwelling and committed is a reality; it does not lose its character as sin. It is the contradiction of God and of that which a believer most characteristically is. It creates the gravest liabilities. But by the grace of God there is this radical change that it does not exercise the dominion."
Every Christian should take in deeply those last quoted words of Murray: "But by the grace of God there is this radical change that [sin] does not exercise the dominion." This is what believers in Christ must hold on to when facing the remaining force of indwelling sin (cf. Rom.7:17-18). Sin's rule, reign, and power has been forever borken. It has been eternally breached. United to Christ, our position is entirely different in relation to sin. We are no longer its slaves. "For sin will have no dominion over you."
Now in my last post I described this truth of Romans 6:14 as our assurance for persevering in sanctification. This assurance comes to us as an encouragement to carry out the imperatives of Romans 6:12-13 - where we're commanded to oppose sin and serve God. With such a high and holy mandate, every believer needs some kind of guarantee that they will not ultimately forsake God and return to their former bondage under sin's reign. Hence, the opening words of Romans 6:14 come to us as a mighty promise of God that we will persevere in sanctification. "For sin will have no dominion over you."
But in addition to this indicative regarding our relationship to sin, Romans 6:14 goes on to express another important reality which aids us as we oppose sin and serve God. It is our permanent position for the perseverance. In the latter half of Romans 6:14, we're told: "...since you are not under law but under grace." The reason sin will not have dominion over us, is because we are not under law but under grace. What does this mean? These words are expressing a definite and permanent position that is true of every Christian. A Christian is not under law but under grace.
But what are the implications of this position? To begin with, let's consider for the remainder of this post, the truth that we are not under law. At the outset of this statement we must clear away a popular misconception. There are many Christians who take this indicative to mean that we have nothing to do with God's law any more. How do we answer this? First of all, the Bible nowhere teaches that a Christian is finished altogether with God's law now that he is saved. While it is true that we are no longer under the curse and condemnation of the law (Gal.3:13); yet, we have not been liberated from the moral mandates of the law - namely - to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt.22:37-38). These two commands sum up the whole of God's moral law (Exod.20:1-17), and thus the righteous requirement of the law; which by the regenerating work of the Spirit, we now have the desire, power, and responsibility to fulfill (see Rom.7:22; 8:3-4; 13:8-10; cf. Jer.31:31-34; Heb. 8:8-13). The Christian life therefore is not a life of lawlessness! Salvation by grace has not canceled obedience to God's law. Rather, it has enabled us with the freedom to obey God in response to His law (see I Jn.2:3-6).
So then, what does it mean to be not under law? It means to be not under the curse and condemnation of the law - since all the law can do by itself is to confirm us in our sinful bondage and judge us for this bondage. The law demands perfect obedience to God which it has no power to give but can only declare and approve. A person under law therefore is someone who is enslaved to the power of sin; because they have no power either in themselves to be free from sin nor in the law to aquire that freedom. Yet, for the believer, the law no longer stands over him pronouncing judgment but approval on account of Jesus Christ.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Free From Sin's Dominion
When it comes to living the Christian life, there is perhaps no passage in God's Word more foundational to our understanding than Romans 6. One reason for this is due to the fact that this chapter addresses head on the danger of antinomianism. This is the teaching which says, "Since I am 'under grace' and no longer 'under law', then it doesn't matter how I live. Under grace I can sin all I want to." Many people in the visible church have bought into this lie. But in Romans 6 the self-deception of the antinomian is exposed, as we are told that a Christian can no longer live in sin since he has "died to sin" (6:1-2, 15-18).
Another reason however for the importance of Romans 6 is the certainty it brings to every Christian regarding the assurance of final salvation. Romans 6 sends a message to every believer in Christ that their salvation will be preserved and thus they will persevere to the very end. No true child of God will be finally and fatally lost. This means that despite how difficult and trying our sanctification may be, God will keep us to the end. And one of the great statements in Romans 6 which speaks directly to this issue is in verse 14: "For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace."
This declaration falls on the immediate heels of two great imperatives communicated in verses 12-13. First, we are called to oppose sin. Second, we are called to serve God. But what guarantee do we have that our opposition to sin and service to God will last? How can we be sure that we will not ultimately defect from God and re-enter our former bondage to sin? The answer to these troubling questions are summed up in Romans 6:14, where at the closing of God's command to fight sin and serve Him, we are given a sweet assuring promise regarding the stability and steadfastness of our sanctification. And in this promise there are two important indicatives concerning our relationship to both sin and God.
First, there is our assurance for persevering in sanctification. The opening words of Romans 6:14 declare: "For sin will have no dominion over you..." Right from the start we must understand two things about this statement. First of all, it is not an imperative. This is not a command where we're being told to do something. Second of all, this is not a promise of future reward pending our obedience to what we are commanded to do in verses 12-13. In other words, we must not take these words in verse 14 as either an exhortation or a consequence of what happens if we oppose sin and serve God. Rather, when we read, "For sin will have no dominion over you", this must be understood as a statement of assured fact for the believer in Christ. An assurance that he can and will effectively oppose sin and serve God since sin will have no dominion over [him]. Moreover, this is God's Word of assurance for His people that they will persevere in sanctification because they will never again be under the dominion of sin.
But affirming this truth raises a question: what does it mean to be under the dominion of sin? One reason for this question is due to the reality that sin still remains in our mortal bodies as Christians, and we still commit sin (6:12; cf. 7:14-24). So how then must we understand that sin will have no dominion over you? Again, what does it mean to be under the dominion of sin? The answer to this question takes us to Romans 3:9-18, where we're told that "both Jews and Greeks, are under sin." To be "under sin" is to be under sin's power, rule, and thus its dominion. But the kind of people described as under sin's dominion are not believers but unbelievers. They are in rebellion to God's law, blind to the things of God, with no inclination to seek God in a saving way, and full of corruption on a path of sinful misconduct (3:10-12). This is a person under the dominion of sin. But this is not a Christian!
A Christian has died to his old way of life under the enslaving power of sin (6:2). He no longer lives under sin's tyranny nor in sin's territory. Furthermore, what he was in Adam as a lost condemned sinner has died also. The "old self" is dead (6:6) and a new creation has been joined in spiritual union with Christ (6:3-5; cf. II Cor,5:17). Based on these gospel facts, is it any wonder that we are given such strong assurance - "for sin will have no dominion over you?" Be encouraged, Christian! Sin has lost its rule over you. It may fight to regain power but it will not prevail. United to Christ under the reign of His redeeming grace - this is where you live.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Why Government Can't Save You
Ten years ago John MacArthur wrote a book entitled Why Government Can't Save You. The subtitle to the book was "An Alternative to Political Activism." As important and timely as this book was when it was originally published, MacArthur has lamented that of all the books he has written, this one book has sold the least copies. Of course, he wasn't surprised at how unpopular the book was, since (as he expressed it), so many American Evangelicals have replaced the Great Commission with political crusades.
But depsite the lack of readership for the book, its biblical message rings just as loud and clear for the church today, as it did ten years ago. In fact, in the last chapter of the book, MacArthur sets forth a clarion call that we all need to take heed to, as we consider our own personal response to government and the American culture at large:
"With society sliding headlong into greater and greater evil, debauchery, violence, and corruption, and seemingly populated outside the church by no one but "modern barbarians," the temptation is strong for believers to jump into the cultural fray as self-righteous social/political reformers and condescending moralizers. All the while those self-styled Christian activists forget or ignore their true mission in the world...As noble as the desire to reform society may be, and as stirring as the emotions sometimes are when we're involved in a political cause we really believe is right, those activities are not to be the Christian's chief priorities...God does not call the church to influence the culture by promoting legislation and court rulings that advance a scriptural point of view. Nor does He condone any type of radical activism that would avoid tax obligations, disobey or seek removal of government officials we don't agree with, or spend an inordinate amount of time campaigning for a so-called Christian slate of candidates.
The church will really change society for the better only when individual believers make their chief concern their own spiritual maturity, which means living in a way that honors God's commands and glorifies His name. Such a concern inherently includes a firm grasp on Scripture and an understanding that its primary mandate to us is to know Christ and proclaim His gospel. A godly attitude coupled with godly living makes the saving message of the gospel credible to the unsaved. If we claim to be saved but still convey proud, unloving attitudes toward the lost, our preaching and teaching - no matter how doctrinally orthodox or politically savvy and persuasive - will be ignored or rejected."
To sum up what MacArthur is basically pleading for here, is that we as the church of Jesus Christ must keep the main thing the main thing. Our "main thing" is "to know Christ and proclaim His gospel." This must always be what everyone in our communities and the nation as a whole recognize about us. We are CHRISTIANS before we're Americans! We are self-denying, cross-bearing followers of Jesus Christ before we're political conservative crusaders seeking to reclaim America as "our country." Thus, when it comes to how we perceive and respond to our government, we need to always be sure that our actions toward the government are in obedience to God's Word rather than merely pontificating our personal political agendas.

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