Category Archives: Reformation

Shine Upon Thy Work of Grace

Today our church began a series that is focused on the great themes of the Reformation: Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone and Christ Alone.  Today, in worship we reminded ourselves of God’s amazing grace.  Our Prayer of Confession:

God of grace, we are reminded this morning that we are dust.  You know our “dustiness”-our character that is so fragile and easily disintegrates.  We bring our hearts and our souls to You this morning, trusting You to bring forgiveness and healing.  We confess that sometimes we simply don’t trust You with our lives and the lives of those we love.  We confess our unbelief of the promises in Your Word that Your grace really is sufficient for us.  We confess our sins, the times we have willingly gone against Your good will for our lives, choosing that which is wrong.  We confess that there are times we ignore the promptings of Your Spirit, and fail to do the good deeds You have prepared for us to do.  Forgive us, Lord, and continue to shape us by Your grace.  We pray in Jesus’s name. Amen.

We confessed our faith answering the Heidelberg Catechism’s question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”   The answer is probably my favorite in that catechism:

That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.  He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.  He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.  Because I belong to Him, Christ, by His Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

This poem of John Newton,  shared by Tim Challies, expresses, as only poetry can, what that grace really means:

’Tis a point I long to know,
Oft it causes anxious thought;
Do I love the Lord, or no?
Am I His, or am I not?

If I love, why am I thus?
Why this dull and lifeless frame?
Hardly, sure, can they be worse,
Who have never heard His name!

Could my heart so hard remain,
Prayer a task and burden prove;
Every trifle give me pain,
If I knew a Savior’s love?

When I turn my eyes within,
All is dark, and vain, and wild;
Filled with unbelief and sin,
Can I deem myself a child?

If I pray, or hear, or read,
Sin is mixed with all I do;
You that love the Lord indeed,
Tell me: Is it thus with you?

Yet I mourn my stubborn will,
Find my sin a grief, and thrall;
Should I grieve for what I feel,
If I did not love at all?

Could I joy His saints to meet,
Choose the ways I once abhorred,
Find, at times, the promise sweet,
If I did not love the Lord?

Lord, decide the doubtful case!
Thou who art Thy people’s sun;
Shine upon Thy work of grace,
If it be indeed begun.

Let me love Thee more and more,
If I love at all, I pray;
If I have not loved before,
Help me to begin today.


The Gospel: How We Have Been Rescued From Peril

I am nearly finished reading Alistair E. McGrath’s book, Reformation Thought.  So much of it reminds me of ongoing debate and confusion in the Christian Church today.  When we forget the “Solos” of the Reformation we easily slide into all sorts of false gospels.

Monergism, a site dedicated to Reformation theology and thought explains why their main goal is to promote salvation by Christ alone:

That salvation is His [Christ’s] gift for guilty sinners, not a reward for the righteous. The Bible and the gospel itself continually draw us back to message of Christ alone as our redemption. We do not contribute, even partly, to our right standing before God, but Jesus provides everything we need for salvation, including a new heart to believe (Deut 29:4, 30:6; Ezek 36:26; John 6:63, 65, 37) . It is precisely here that is the focal point for which the church has battled throughout its history because the enemy would have us dilute the gospel with something other than, or in addition to, Jesus Christ.


One article answers the question “What do we mean by the ‘gospel’?”  (Excerpted from Timothy Keller’s book, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City:

What do we mean by “the gospel”? Answering this question is a bit more complex than we often assume. Not everything the Bible teaches can be considered “the gospel” (although it can be argued that all biblical doctrine is necessary background for understanding the gospel). The gospel is a message about how we have been rescued from peril. The very word gospel has as its background a news report about some life-altering event that has already happened:

Mark 1:1, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Luke 2:10, And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”


….The gospel is “heraldic proclamation” before it is anything else (D.A. Carson, “What Is the Gospel? —Revisited,” in For the Fame of God’s Name, 158). It is news that creates a life of love, but the life of love is not itself the gospel. The gospel is not everything that we believe, do, or say. The gospel must primarily be understood as good news, and the news is not as much about what we must do as about what has been done. The gospel is preeminently a report about the work of Christ on our behalf — salvation accomplished for us. That’s how it is a gospel of grace.


And I find Keller’s note on a commonly heard aphorism instructive:


The popular saying “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary” is helpful but also misleading. If the gospel were primarily about what we must do to be saved, it could be communicated as well by actions (to be imitated) as by words. But it the gospel is primarily about what God has done to save us, and how we can receive it through faith, it can only be expressed through words. Faith cannot come without hearing. This is why we read in Galatians 2:5 that heresy endangers the truth of the gospel, and why Philippians 1:16 declares that a person’s mind must be persuaded of the truth of the gospel. Ephesians 1:13 also asserts that the gospel is the word of truth. Ephesians 6:19 and Colossians 1:23 teach that we advance the gospel through verbal communication, particular preaching.]



Luther on Justifying Faith

Martin Luther wrote that “The reason why some people do not understand why faith alone justifies is that they do not know what faith is.”  Yet more from McGrath ‘s book:

Three points relating to Luther’s idea of faith may be singled out as having special importance to his doctrine of justification….these points are:

Faith has a personal, rather than a purely historical, reference.
Faith concerns trust in the promises of God.
Faith unites the believer to Christ.


I have often spoken about two different kinds of faith.  The first goes like this:  you believe it is true that Christ is the person who is described and proclaimed in the gospels, but you do not believe that he is such a person for you.  You doubt if you can receive that from him, and you think: ‘Yes, I’m sure he is that person for someone else (like Peter and Paul, and for religious and holy people).  But is he that person for me?  Can I confidently expect to receive everything from him that the saints expect?’ You see, this faith is nothing.  It receives nothing of Christ, and tastes nothing of him either.  It cannot feel joy, not love of him or for him.  This is a faith related to Christ, but not a faith in Christ…The only faith which deserves to be called Christian is this: you believe unreservedly that it is not only for Peter and the saints that Christ is such a person, but also for you yourself–in fact, for you more than anyone else (emphasis added).

It is necessary that anyone who is about to confess his sins put his trust only and completely in the most gracious promise of God.  That is, he must be certain that the one who has promised forgiveness to whoever confesses his sins will most faithfully fulfill this promise…[W]e are not to glory on account of the worthiness or adequacy of our confession (because there is no such worthiness or adequacy) but on account of the truth and certainty of God’s promises.

…Even if your faith is weak, I still have exactly the same treasure and the same Christ as others.  There is no difference…It is like two people, each of whom owns a hundred gulden.  One may carry them around in a paper sack, the other in an iron chest.  But despite these differences, they both own the same treasure.  Thus the Christ who you and I own is one and the same, irrespective of the strength or weakness of your faith or mine.

I like this restatement by McGrath:

The content of faith thus matters far more than its intensity.  It is pointless to trust passionately in someone who is not worthy of trust; even a modicum of faith in someone who is totally reliable is vastly to be preferred.  Trust is not, however, an occasional attitude.  For Luther, it is an undeviating trusting outlook upon life, a constant stance of conviction of the trustworthiness of the promises of God.

How faith unites the believer with Christ is more mysterious.  Luther again:

Faith unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom.  As Paul teaches us, Christ and the soul become one flesh by this mystery (Ephesians 5:31-2).  And if they are one flesh and the marriage is real– in fact, it is the most perfect of all marriages, …then it follows that everything that they have is held in common, whether good or evil.  So the believer can boast of the glory in whatever Christ possesses, as though it were his or her own; and whatever the believer has, Christ claims as his own.  Let us see how this works and how it benefits us.  Christ is full of grace, life and salvation.  The human soul is full of sin, death and damnation.  Now let faith come between them.  Sin, death and damnation will then be Christ’s; and grace, life and salvation will be the believer’s.



Faith is Not the Same as Certainty

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I’ve been reading Alistair E. McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction. In the chapter titled “The Doctrine of Justification by Faith” one of the subjects he examines is the reformers’ thought on the assurance of salvation.   McGrath:

For Luther, as for the reformers in general, one could rest assured of one’s salvation. Salvation was grounded in the faithfulness of God to God’s promises of mercy; to fail to have confidence in salvation was, in effect, to doubt the reliability and trustworthiness of God.  Yet this must not be seen as a supreme confidence in God, untroubled by doubt.  Faith is not the same as certainty; although the theological foundation of Christian faith may be secure, the human perception of and commitment to this foundation may waver.                                                                                                This point is brought out clearly by Calvin, often thought to be the most confident of all the reformers in relation to matters of faith.  His definition of faith certainly seems to point in this direction:

Now we shall have a right definition of faith if we say that it is a steady certain knowledge of the divine benevolence towards us, which is founded upon the truth of the gracious promise of God in Christ, and is both revealed to our minds and sealed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Yet the theological certainty of this statement does not, according to Calvin, necessarily lead to psychological security.  It is perfectly consistent with a sustained wrestling with doubt and anxiety on the part of the believer.

When we stress that faith ought to be certain and secure, we do not have in mind a certainty without doubt, or a security without any anxiety. Rather, we affirm that believers have a perpetual struggle with their own lack of faith, and are far from possessing a peaceful conscience, never interrupted by any disturbance. On the other hand, we want to deny that they may fall out of, or depart from, their confidence in the divine mercy, no matter how much they may be troubled.

In his study Calvin’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, Edward A. Dower writes:
If the bare words of his definition of faith make it ‘steady and certain knowledge’, according to Calvin, we must notice that such faith never is realized. We could formulate a description of existing faith for him as ‘a steady and certain knowledge invariably attacked by vicious doubts.
Amazon offers reasonably priced used copies of the third edition, which I have.   Mine is heavily marked in my own hand.


Music of the Reformation


Who trusts in God, a strong abode in heaven and earth possesses;
Who looks in love to Christ above, no fear his heart oppresses.
In thee alone, dear Lord, we own sweet hope and consolation;
Our shield from foes, our balm for woes, our great and sure salvation.
Tho’ Satan’s wrath beset our path, and worldly scorn assail us,
While thou art near we will not fear, thy strength shall never fail us:
Thy rod and staff shall keep us safe, and guide our steps forever;
Nor shades of death, nor hell beneath, our souls from thee shall sever.
In all the strife of mortal life our feet shall stand securely;
Temptation’s hour shall lose its pow’r, for thou shalt guard us surely.
O God, renew, with heav’nly dew, our body, soul, and spirit,
Until we stand at thy right hand, thro’ Jesus’ saving merit.
Written by Joachim Magdeburg in 1572, I discovered this hymn today in my 1935 Pilgrim Hymnal.    The CD set from which the above performance comes looks like something I would like to own, especially after reading this review:
“Heirs of the Reformation is nothing if not ambitious. Over forty chorales (dating from the time of Luther to German high Orthodoxy) are set by an encyclopedic list of cantors spanning the centuries, from Praetorius and Scheidt to Robert Buckley Farlee and Kevin Hildebrand. The dedicated vocal performances are backed by a kaleidoscopic variety of instrumentation, ranging from organ, brass and woodwinds to the period ensemble Musik Ekklesia. Kudos go to recording consultants Henry Gerike, Peter Reske, and Philip Spray; they and all the performers involved have produced not only a fine reference work, but a richly devotional listening experience.”
—GraceNotes (June/July 2009)
You can sample each of the hymns here.

Learning about the Reformation

I am currently reading two books by Alister McGrath,  Reformation Thought: An Introduction (1988) and The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis (2014).    By the time I finished reading the preface in Reformation Thought I realized my understanding of the movement was, at best, paltry.  I appreciate McGrath’s careful explanations that assume the reader is not familiar with key terms and ideas, finding out that even someone (me) who has fundamental understanding of these things needs correction or clarification.

From the section titled “How to Use this Book:”

Three words sum up the aim of this book: introduce; explain; contextualize.  The book aims to introduce the leading ideas of the European Reformation during the first half of the sixteenth century.  It is like a sketch map, which indicates the main features of the intellectual landscape: notes, suggestions for further reading will allow the reader to add finer detail later.  Second, the book aims to explain these ideas.  It assumes that the reader knows nothing about the Christian theology which underlies the Reformation, and explains what terms such as ‘justification by faith’ and ‘predestination’ mean, and why they are of religious and social relevance.  Third, it aims to contextualize these ideas by setting them in their proper intellectual, social and political context.  That context includes such great intellectual movements as humanism and scholasticism, the alternative religious ideologies of the radical Reformation and Roman Catholicism, and the political and social realities of the imperial cities of the early sixteenth century.  All these factors affected the thought of the reformers, and its impact upon their public— and this work aims to identify that influence and assess its effects.
Here are the section headings of the book:
1    Introduction
2    Late Medieval Religion
3    Humanism and the Reformation
4    Scholasticism and the Reformation
5    The Reformers: A Biographical Introduction
6    The Doctrine of Justification by Faith
7    The Doctrine of Predestination
8    The Return of Scripture
9    The Doctrine of the Sacraments
10  The Doctrine of the Church
11  The Political Thought of the Reformation
12  The Diffusion of the Thought of the Reformation
13  The Thought of the English Reformation
14  The Impact of Reformation Thought upon History
One of the surprises, to me, was the nature of Medieval humanism and its contribution to the Reformation movement.  Humanism here is described as:
a cultural and educational movement, primarily concerned with the promotion of eloquence in its various forms….It is beyond doubt that the Renaissance witnessed the rise of classical scholarship.  The Greek and Latin classics were widely studied in their original languages….[T]he evidence available makes it clear that such study was regarded as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.  That end was the promotion of contemporary written and spoken eloquence….it has become increasingly clear that ‘humanism’ lacked any coherent philosophy….In short, humanism was concerned with how ideas were obtained and expressed, rather than with the actual substance of those ideas.
And this:
The literary and cultural program of humanism can be summarized in the slogan ad fonts—back to the original sources.  The squalor of the medieval period is bypassed, in order to recover the intellectual and artistic glories of the classical period.  The ‘filter’ of medieval commentaries—whether on legal texts or on the Bible—is abandoned, in order to engage directly with the original texts.  Applied to the Christian church, the slogan ad fonts meant a direct return to the title-deeds of Christianity—the patristic writers and, supremely, the Bible.
I am enjoying this immensely.