Category Archives: Theology

Ever Thankful

“In Him we live and move and have our being.”   

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The Loom of Time

Man’s life is laid in the loom of time
To a pattern he does not see,
While the weavers work and the shuttles fly
Till the dawn of eternity.

Some shuttles are filled with silver threads
And some with threads of gold,
While often but the darker hues
Are all that they may hold.

But the weaver watches with skillful eye
Each shuttle fly to and fro,
And sees the pattern so deftly wrought
As the loom moves sure and slow.

God surely planned the pattern:
Each thread, the dark and fair,
Is chosen by His master skill
And placed in the web with care.

He only knows its beauty,
And guides the shuttles which hold
The threads so unattractive,
As well as the threads of gold.

Not till each loom is silent,
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God reveal the pattern
And explain the reason why

The dark threads were as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
For the pattern which He planned.

Author Unknown –

Give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

 

I Thessalonians 5: 18

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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:

USE WORDS IF NECESSARY

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.

Luther:

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.

 

 

Luther and Understanding the Righteousness of God.

More from Reformation Thought: An Introduction, this from the chapter titled “The Doctrine of Justification by Faith”:

[During the period 1513-1516 Luther] understood the ‘righteousness of God’ to refer to an impartial divine attribute.  God judges individuals with complete impartiality.  If the individual has met the basic precondition for justification, he or she is justified; if he has not, he or she is condemned….He gives each individual exactly what he or she merits—nothing more and nothing less.
….Luther’s growing pessimism concerning the abilities of sinful humanity led him to despair of his own salvation, which increasingly seemed an impossibility. ‘How can I find a gracious God’, he asked.
This was no mere theological problem of purely academic interest….it concerned him, personally…For Luther, as for so many others, the crucial question of human existence concerned how to clinch one’s salvation…It was the central question on his personal agenda.
It is not know exactly what occurred, or when it occurred, but Luther finally had a breakthrough, and “it changed Luther’s outlook on life completely, and ultimately propelled him into the forefront of the Reformation struggle.
Here is Luther’s own description of his personal difficulties with the problem of the ‘righteousness of God’:
I had certainly wanted to understand Paul in his letter to the Romans. But what prevented me from doing so was not so much cold feet as that one phrase in the first chapter: ‘the righteousness of God is revealed in it’ (Romans 1:17). For I hated that phrase, ‘the righteousness of God’, which I had been taught to understand as the righteousness by which God is righteous, and punishes unrighteous sinners.
Although I lived a blameless life as a monk, I felt that I was a sinner with an uneasy conscience before God. I also could not believe that I had pleased him with my works. Far from loving that righteous God who punished sinners, I actually hated him….I was in desperation to know what Paul meant in this passage. At last, as I meditated day and night on the relation of the words ‘the righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written, the righteous person shall live by faith’, I began to understand that ‘righteousness of God’ as that by which the righteous person lives by the gift of God (faith); and this sentence, ‘the righteousness of God is revealed’, to refer to a passive righteousness, by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous person lives by faith’. This immediately made me feel as though I had been born again, and as though I had entered through open gates into paradise itself. From that moment I saw the whole face of Scripture in a new light…And now, where I had once hated the phrase, ‘the righteousness of God’, I began to love and extol it as the sweetest of phrases, so that this passage in Paul became the very gate of paradise to me.
McGrath’s comment:
Luther’s insight, which he describes in this autobiographical passage, is that the God of the Christian gospel is not a harsh judge who rewards individuals according to their merits, but a merciful and gracious God who bestows righteousness upon sinners as a gift.

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.

 

Reading about the Reformation

 

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On this 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation I want to finish reading Alister McGrath’s book Reformation Thought: An Introduction. When I started reading, a few months ago, I immediately realized that what I thought I knew about that time and the purposes and processes of the Reformation was paltry at best. I anticipate enjoying the book, and coming away with a better understanding because I’ve read several books by McGrath. He is a good writer. I trust him to be knowledgeable about anything he commits to writing, and as accurate, easy to understand, and truthful as possible.
From the chapter titled Introduction:

…..The sad state of the church in the early sixteenth century was simply a symptom of a more radical disease—a deviation from the distinctive ideas of the Christian faith, a loss of intellectual identity, a failure to grasp what Christianity really was. Christianity could not be reformed without an understanding of what Christianity was actually meant to be…. [T]he obvious decline of the late Renaissance church was the latest stage in a gradual process which had been going on since about the theological renaissance of the twelfth century—the corruption of Christian doctrine and ethics.

Confronting corruption of Christian doctrine and ethics is an ongoing, and always contemporary battle. Reformation (in the perfect tense) is central to Christianity, both on a personal and corporate level.

 

Hearty Medicine for the Suffering Soul

Trevin Wax, a Christian blogger at the Gospel Coalition, has written a personal account of the comfort of trusting God’s providence and presence in his family’s present crisis, the illness of his wife’s mother in far away Romania.

Wax:

For two days I was unable to pray. How strange it felt, as someone who is used to praying at specific times and off and on throughout the day, to be unable to spiritually breathe. It was as if the wind had been knocked out of me. No words could come. My inability to pray did not stem from anger toward God or faithlessness in his purposes, but from the shock that paralyzed my heart. I felt him, but I couldn’t talk to him….

And then this:

Through this time, I began reading a little book from my favorite Puritan writer, Thomas Watson, called All Things for GoodWatson calls Romans 8:28 the Christian’s “cordial,” hearty medicine for the suffering soul. He connects the pain of the present moment to the joy that comes from being assured of God’s providence.

“To know that nothing hurts the godly, is a matter of comfort; but to be assured that ALL things which fall out shall co-operate for their good, that their crosses shall be turned into blessings, that showers of affliction water the withering root of their grace and make it flourish more; this may fill their hearts with joy till they run over.”

This line ministered to me more than anything else in the book. Here, Watson is speaking of the times of trouble that the Lord leads us through:

“He is their strength in the time of trouble” (Psalm 37:39). God will be the strength of our hearts; he will join his forces with us. Either he will make his hand lighter, or our faith stronger.”

God will not allow us to be overcome by our weakness. He is our strength. Either he will lighten the trial or strengthen our faith. In both cases, he is with us. Then I came across this reminder of what Christ does for us in those moments when life’s trials throw us on our faces and make it nearly impossible to pray:

“When a Christian is weak, and can hardly pray for himself, Jesus Christ is praying for him; and he prays for three things: that the saints may be kept from sin, for his people’s progress in holiness, and for their glorification.”