The Centrality of Belief

November 6th, 2011

Martin Luther on John 16:9, speaking of the Holy Spirit convicting the world “of sin, because they believe not on me.”

Thus both salvation and damnation hinge entirely on whether we believe or do not believe. The sentence that closes and denies heaven to all who have refused to accept this faith in Christ has already been pronounced with finality. For this unbelief retains all sin and cannot obtain forgiveness, just as faith delivers from all sin. Hence without this faith everything, including even the best works and life of which man is capable, is and remains sinful and damnable. Good works may be praiseworthy in themselves and commanded by God; but they are vitiated by unbelief and for this reason cannot please God just as all the works and life which spring from the faith of a Christian are pleasing to God. In brief, without Christ all is damned and lost; in Christ all is good and blessed. Therefore even the sin inherited from Adam and still dwelling in flesh and blood does not have to harm or damn us.
But one should not understand this to mean that sin is permitted, that one may sin and do evil without restraint. For since faith brings forgiveness of sin, and since Christ came to remove and destroy sin, it is impossible for anyone who lives openly, impenitently, and smugly in sin and according to his lusts to be a believing Christian. For where there is such a sinful life, there can be no penitence; but where there is no penitence, there can be no forgiveness of sin either, and consequently no faith, which received the forgiveness of sin. On the other hand, he who has faith in such forgiveness resists sin and does not give way to its lusts but contends against it until he is rid of it. And although we cannot be completely rid of sin in this life, although it still remains even in the saintliest people, yet believers have the comfort that this is covered by Christ’s forgiveness and is not reckoned for their damnation if they continue to believe in Christ. Here the words of St. Paul in Rom. 8:1,4 apply: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who walk not according to the flesh.” Also the words found in Gal. 5:24: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Behold, these are the people who are told that sin will not harm or condemn them. To the others, the unbelievers and reprobates, no message is given here.

James Durham, in his 59th sermon on Isaiah 53 says this:

These three are the great warrant that a sinner has to roll himself over on; a complete Mediator; a faithful God promising to answer all grounds of fears, doubts and jealousies; and free grace, which answers all challenges that may come in to hinder his closing with, and resting on the promise. For if it should be said, ‘How dare you lay hold upon the promises?’ The answer is, ‘It is free.’ It is not the mount that may not be touched, but it is Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, etc. It is grace that is the rise, the end, and the condition of it. These are the three on which faith yields itself to Christ, and which are the object of it, on which it dare hazard, and on which it does hazard; and these three are revealed in the gospel of the grace of him that is faithful, and cannot deny himself.
May we not then say, ‘O sinners, if you will believe that, you have a good resting place,’ a sure Foundation, a tried Cornerstone, as it is Isa. 28:16 cited Rom. 9:33, where the apostle has it, He that believes on him shall never be ashamed. There is a sufficient surety, a full Mediator, there is a faithful God that will keep his word, and there is a free covenant and promise, softer a bruised soul to roll itself over upon, than any bed of the finest downs is for a weary and crazy body. This is a chariot paved with love for the daughters of Jerusalem.
Single out Christ from all that is in the word, without slighting any part of it, and believe in him and lippen to him; let him have another weight and lift of you than you give to any other thing; he is able to bear it, and God will never quarrel you for so doing, but will keep his word to you that do betake yourselves, or that have betaken yourselves to him. He that believes shall never perish, nor come into condemnation. O! know what a ground you have to rest upon; it is even the substance and marrow of all the Word of God. You have Christ and his fullness, God and his faithfulness, grace and its freeness. And are there such three things beside? Or is it imaginable or possible that there can be any beguile, or failure here? Spare not then to lay the weight of your souls upon it. Let it be the foundation of your peace, and let it answer all challenges that may be, whether for many, or for great and grievously aggravated sins. Only by faith take hold of this righteousness, and rest upon God’s faithfulness, and free promise to make it forthcoming to you. But upon the other side, O how great will it aggrege your guilt, that had such a remedy in your offer, such a tried cornerstone, elect and precious, to rest upon, and yet made no use of it! Let me exhort, beseech, and even obtest you, That ye receive not this grace in vain. But as Christ is laid for a sure Foundation, so come to him, and build upon him, that you may not be ashamed in the day of the Lord, when all the believe not, how presumptuously so ever they may hold up their heads now, shall be ashamed and confounded, world without end. O happy, thrice happy will they all be found to be then, who have trusted in him.

Sad and Sweet

August 7th, 2011

Great theological writing often takes on some of the pregnancy of expression that characterizes Scripture itself, where each thought can be unfolded and deductions drawn from it, so that it is seen that a very great deal of truth was compressed into quite a compact form. James Durham illustrates that in this paragraph from the 22nd of his 72 sermons on Isaiah 53: it is not just that there are 72 sermons on the twelve verses that take up the chapter, but that in this paragraph there are many points contained that could be set out at large.

It is hard to tell whether the subject of this verse, and almost of this whole chapter, is more sad or more sweet. It is indeed a sad subject to read and hear of the great sufferings of our blessed Lord Jesus and of the despiteful usage that he met with, and to see such a speat of malice spewed and spit out on that glorious face; so that, when he is bearing our griefs and carrying our sorrows, we do even then account him plagued, smitten of God, and afflicted, and in a manner look upon it as well bestowed. Yet it is a most sweet subject, if we either consider the love it comes from, or the comfortable effects that follow it; that has been the rise, the cause, and the occasion of much singing to man here below, and is the cause and occasion of so much singing among the redeemed that are this day before the throne of God. And as the grace of God has overcome the malice of men, so we are persuaded this cause of rejoicing has a sweetness in it beyond the sadness, though often we mar our own spiritual mirth, and know not how to dance when he pipes unto us.

Carelessly Stabbing Hearts

July 25th, 2011

Thomas Manton, in his sermon on 2 Thessalonians 2:13, has a profitable word for ministers, and all believers who speak to others, to be cautious in how the threatenings of God’s word are presented to His people:

How careful we should be to support the hearts of God’s people, when we speak of his terrible judgments on the wicked. This was the practice of the apostles everywhere; as when the author to the Hebrews had spoken of the dreadful state of apostates, ‘whose end is to be burned:’ Heb. vi. 9, ‘But we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak;’ he did not condemn them all as apostates, nor would discourage them by that terrible threatening. So again, after another terrible passage: Heb. x. 39, ‘But we are not of them that draw back unto perdition, but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.’ Once more, when another apostle had spoken of the sin unto death, which is not to be prayed for, he presently addeth, 1 John v. 19, 19, ‘Whosoever is born of God, sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not. And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.’ Zuinglius saith, Bone Christiane, haec nihil ad te, &c.—Good Christian, this is not thy portion, when he had flashed the terrors of the Lord in the face of sinners. The reasons of this are partly with respect to the saints, who, sometimes out of weakness and infirmity, and sometimes out of tenderness of conscience, are apt to be startled, electorum corda semper ad se sollicite pudeant (Gregor.) We deserve such dreadful judgments, and therefore fear them; partly, with respect to ourselves, that we may rightly divide the word of truth: 2 Tim. Ii. 15, ‘Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.’ Give every one his portion; make not their hearts sad whom God would not make sad, and, therefore, they are much to blame who, in reproving sinners, stab a saint at the heart, and take the doctrine but for a colour to make a perverse application. The apostle here useth more tenderness: ‘God shall send them strong delusion. But we are bound always to give thanks for you, brethren, beloved of the Lord; because the Lord hath from beginning chosen you to salvation, through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.’

Reborn for the Future

October 17th, 2010

Awake, O man, and recognize the dignity of thy nature. Recollect thou wast made in the image of GOD, which although it was corrupted in Adam, was yet re-fashioned in Christ. Use visible creatures as they should be used, as thou usest earth, sea, sky, air, springs, and rivers: and whatever in them is fair and wondrous, ascribe to the praise and glory of the Maker. Be not subject to that light wherein birds and serpents, beasts and cattle, flies and worms delight. Confine the material light to your bodily senses, and with all your mental powers embrace that “true light which lighteth every man that cometh into this world,” and of which the prophet says, “Come unto Him and be enlightened, and your faces shall not blush.” For if we “are a temple of GOD, and the Spirit of GOD dwelleth in” us, what every one of the faithful has in his own heart is more than what he wonders at in heaven. And so, dearly beloved, we do not bid or advise you to despise GOD’s works or to think there is anything opposed to your Faith in what the good GOD has made good, but to use every kind of creature and the whole furniture of this world reasonably and moderately: for as the Apostle says, “the things which are seen are temporal: but the things which are not seen are eternal.” Hence because we are born for the present and reborn for the future, let us not give ourselves up to temporal goods, but to eternal: and in order that we may behold our hope nearer, let us think on what the Divine Grace has bestowed on our nature on the very occasion when we celebrate the mystery of the LORD ’s birthday. Let us hear the Apostle, saying: “for ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in GOD. But when CHRIST, who is your life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory:” who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Ghost for ever and ever. Amen.

Leo the Great, On the Feast of the Nativity, VII (Sermon 27)

On Doing God a Favor

October 10th, 2010

Martin Luther (On John 15:16):

Now let the monks and the whole world go ahead and boast of their merits, and let them choose as long as they please. You hear Christ say: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.” He refuses to grant that He was chosen by you. All Scripture reproves and condemns any choosing on our part before and without God’s commandment. That is what the Jews did when they instituted their service of God, which they themselves chose and set apart from those ordained and established by God. They captioned it as follows: “This is the chosen service of God. Here we want to find God, reconcile Him, and obtain mercy.” That is how they treated God in everything; they always wanted to take the initiative and to decide upon what should please God. They instituted the use of incense and sacrifice in every vale and on the mountaintops, where there was a green forest or some other attractive spot; and then they boasted that there they had found the true God, who would now have to be gracious to them. Oh, how the prophets wearied themselves rebuking the people because of this abominable vice! Thus we hear Isaiah lament in chapter 66, verse 3: “These have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations”; and in chapter 1, verse 29, we read: “For you shall be ashamed of the oaks in which you delighted, and you shall blush for the gardens which you have chosen”; and in chapter 66, verse 3, Isaiah says that he who engages in such self-chosen sacrifices and service of God reminds him of one “who offers swine’s blood; who slaughters an ox is like him who kills a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, like him who breaks a dog’s neck.” Before God such self-chosen holiness is nothing but sheer murder or blasphemy or a denial of God; for in no circumstances will God consent to it if we presume to prescribe and choose what should please Him. We monks used to choose the things that should procure God’s mercy for us. I thought: “Oh, if I enter a cloister and serve God in cowl and tonsure, He will reward and welcome me!”
Thus the entire papacy is nothing but disobedience to and enmity against God. For they are so mad and so stupid that they simply refuse to let God take the first step of seeking and electing them through His word and offering them all His mercy and His friendship through His Son’s suffering and death. All this they disdain and reject. They want to have the glory and the prerogative that God should exist by our grace and do according to our choosing.
Well, this has been the bone of contention in the world ever since the beginning, and I suppose it will remain that until the end. Cain also wanted God to conform to his pattern; he wanted God to have regard for his own work and offering and not for his brother’s. And the world has consistently followed in his footsteps up to the present hour. This is inevitable, for it cannot refrain from reversing the words of our text and saying in fact: “I do not want to be chosen by God, but I want to anticipate Him and choose Him.” But God can and will never tolerate this; He reverses the order and declares: “You cannot and shall not choose Me, but I must choose you. Things will not go as you plan, but as I will. I will be your Lord and Master; I refuse to be taught by you.”
Throughout Scripture, therefore, God condemned and rejected all such choosing without and contrary to His commandment. St. Paul, too, is a bitter enemy of this vice. In Col. 2:18 he says: “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement”; also verse 23: “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement.” Thus he described the monasticism that was to come; it would introduce nothing but the self-chosen service of God, which it would embellish and adorn by saying: “I mean well, and I am doing this out of love for God and in His honor. Therefore this will please Him, and He will be gracious to me.” Of course, God is twice as hostile to such men as He is to the others; for He Himself tells us how He wants to be served, just as He Himself called the people of Israel out of Egypt and gave them the Ten Commandments, which told them what to do and what not to do, lest they themselves devise and specify how they should serve Him.
Therefore Christ says here: “Just forget about all your boasting that you chose Me. Follow Me, and let Me choose you first. Listen to what I say to you, in order that I, not you, may have the glory of having merited this for you by My blood and death.” Thus He told them to be humble, as Christians must be, because they enjoy the high honor and the great glory of being called Christ’s and God’s friends. God wants them to know and never to forget what made them friends. They must always confess that they have not merited or earned this friendship, but that it has been given to them out of the Lord Christ’s pure grace. A friend who takes and demands nothing of us but only gives and presents everything to us deserves to be loved, cherished, and honored. In other instances, the world accepts favors gladly, but is reluctant to do them. Why, then, is this favor not welcomed? Here on earth we are ready to accept favors from everyone; here no one can do too much for us. But because God wants to give us everything good from heaven, we decline to accept it. Here we want to reverse the order and to do the poor Man, our Lord God, a favor – the One from whom we should accept favors. Here people erect buildings, endow and sacrifice abundantly, give and do what should be given and done, just in order that we may praise the service we are rendering to God. On the other hand, when we are asked to give to our neighbor who is in need of our help, and to do good to him, we will not and cannot do or give anything. In brief, we refuse to accept anything from God, and we refuse to give others anything. This is a shameful and accursed plague inflicted on the human race by the devil, who corrupts and contaminates all that is good, true, and holy.

In some ways, Luther comes very close to the regulative principle of worship here, referencing some of the same texts that would be used in subsequent discussions (the example of Cain, Colossians 2). Obviously he doesn’t quite get that far, perhaps because he is thinking so exclusively in terms of the favor of God, whether we receive it freely or acquire it by effort, that he doesn’t stop to apply his own words to the regulation of worship apart from the question of justification.

Scourging and Receiving

August 22nd, 2010

Augustine on Psalm 116

“Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; yea, our God is merciful” (ver. 5).
He is gracious, righteous, and merciful. Gracious in the first place, because He hath inclined His ear unto me; and I knew not that the ear of God had approached my lips, till I was aroused by those beautiful feet, that I might call upon the Lord’s Name: for who hath called upon Him, save he whom He first called? Hence therefore He is in the first place “gracious;” but “righteous,” because He scourgeth; and again, “merciful,” because He receiveth; for “He scourgeth every son whom He receiveth;” nor ought it to be so bitter to me that He scourgeth, as sweet that He receiveth. For how should not “The Lord, who keepeth little ones” (ver. 6), scourge those whom, when of mature age, He seeketh to be heirs; “for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?”

If He is to come or, as Christ said earlier, if He is to be sent or to proceed, also to hear and to speak, He must, of course, be something. Now He surely is not the Father, since the Father does not come and is not sent. Nor is He the Son, who has already come and now returns to the Father, and of whom the Holy Spirit will preach and whom He will glorify.
But Christ point in particular to the distinctive Person of the Holy Spirit or His attribute, also to His divine essence together with the Father and the Son, when He says: “Whatever He hears He will speak.” For here Christ refers to a conversation carried on in the Godhead, a conversation in which no creatures participate. He sets up a pulpit both for the speaker and for the listener. He makes the Father the Preacher and the Holy Spirit the Listener. It is really beyond human intelligence to grasp how this takes place; but since we cannot explain it with human words or intelligence, we must believe it. Here faith must disregard all creatures and must not concentrate on physical preaching and listening; it must conceive of this as preaching, speaking, and listening inherent in the essence of the Godhead.
Here it is relevant to state that Scripture calls ou Lord Christ – according to His divine nature – a “Word” (John 1:1) which the Father speaks with and in Himself. Thus this Word has a true, divine nature from the Father. It is not a word spoken by the Father, as a physical, natural word spoken by a human being is a voice or a breath that does not remain in him but comes out of him and remains outside him. No, this Word remains in the Father forever. Thus these are two distinct Persons: He who speaks and the Word that is spoken, that is, the Father and the Son. Here, however, we find the third Person following these two, namely, the One wh hears both the Speaker and the spoken Word. For it stands to reason that there must also be a listener where a speaker and a word are found. But all this speaking, being spoken, and listening takes place within the divine nature and also remains there, where no creature is or can be. All three – Speaker, Word, and Listener – must be God Himself; all three must be coeternal and in a single undivided majesty. For there is no difference or inequality in the divine essence, neither a beginning nor an end. Therefore one cannot say that the Listener is something outside God, or that there was a time when He began to be a Listener; but just as the Father is a Speaker from eternity, and just as the Son is spoken from eternity, so the Holy Spirit is the Listener from eternity.
Earlier we heard (John 14:26; 15:26) that the Holy Spirit is sent not only by the Father but that He is also sent by, and proceeds from, the Son. Therefore this Listener must be called the Listener of both the Father and the Son, not of the Father alone or of the Son alone. Christ has stated plainly: “The Comforter, whom I shall send to you from the Father.” The expression “to send” has the very same connotation that the expression “to proceed from” has. For he who proceeds from someone is sent. Conversely, he who is sent proceeds from him who sends him. Consequently, the Holy Spirit has His divine essence not only from the Father but also from the Son, as the followings words will illustrate further.
Thus these words confirm and teach exactly what we confess in our Creed, namely, that in one divine essence there are three distinct Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is illustrated by means of a metaphor, or a picture of natural things, in order that we in our weakness may be able to know what is meant and to talk about it. But we cannot search it our or understand it. We must believe, and cling to, these words which we hear from Christ Himself, just as Christendom and especially the holy fathers and bishops did. They had disputations about this article, and they fought for and preserved it against the heretics and lying spirits who made bold to meditate on and to affect wisdom concerning these sublime, inscrutable matters beyond and apart from Scripture.

Martin Luther, on John 16:13

The church itself is still an advent church; for we are still waiting for him who is to come in the unveiled radiance of unconditional Godhead with the eternal kingdom. And that church rightly tells the impatient who want to see God directly here and now: Prepare for this God the true way, the way of faith, of love, of humility, and the way of patience with its unimpressive provisional messengers and their poor words and small signs. For then God will certainly come. He only comes to those who in patience love his forerunners and the provisional. The Pharisees of the Gospel, however, who rejected the forerunner of the messiah because he was not the definitive reality, did not recognize him who was the definitive reality either.

Karl Rahner, The Great Church Year

Despair confers no holiness

April 11th, 2010

Stephen Charnock on the grace of God:

It presents us with the strongest motives to obedience. ‘The grace of God teacheth us to deny ungodliness.’ What chains bind faster and closer than love? Here is love to our nature in his incarnation, love to us, though enemies, in his death and passion: encouragements to obedience by the proffers of pardon for former rebellions. By the disobedience of man God introduces his redeeming grace, and engages his creature to more ingenuous and excellent returns than his innocent state could oblige him to. In his created state he had goodness to move him, he hath the same goodness now to oblige him as a creature, and a greater love and mercy to oblige him as a repaired creature; and the terror of justice is taken off, which might envenom his heart as a criminal. In his revolted state he had misery to discourage him; in his redeemed state he hath love to attract him. Without such a way, black despair had seized upon the creature exposed to a remediless misery, and God would have hail no returns of love from the best of his earthly works; but if any sparks of ingenuity be left, they will be excited by the efficacy of this argument.