Selected Book Summaries From the REFORMATION & MODERN PERIOD_Martin Luther: On Christian Liberty, Justification, the Church Fathers and the Scriptures

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Luther, On Christian Liberty[1]

In his letter On Christian Liberty, Luther addresses Pope Leo X and

affirms that he has never thought any evil concerning his person, but regards him highly and his dispute is not over morals, but over the word of truth.  The Church of Rome “Babylon” doesn’t want reform, and the pope is as Daniel in that Satanically ruled city, the “seat of all pestilence”.  He views Luther’s chief nemesis, John Eccius, as the enemy of peace, evidenced by their exaltation of the Pope (i.e., only via his authority one can be saved, and he alone has the right to interpret Scripture).  Instead of trusting those who exalt him, Luther implores the Pope to trust the ones who humble him.

The Christian is the Freest Lord of All

For Luther, the Christian is the freest lord of all, and subject to none, but is also the most dutiful servant of all and subject to all (Paul’s example used: 1 Cor.9: 19; Rom.13:8).  He argues that mere outward pious acts do not make one justified or liberate the soul, but rather the risen Christ and his word (Jn.11: 25; Mt.4: 4).  The soul can do without everything but the word of God.  Through the word salvation is realized (Rom.1; 10:9; 10:4; 1:17) and the sinner liberated (Rom.3: 23).  This justification is by faith alone, hence, the Christian’s primary concern must be to grow, not in reliance on works, but in strengthening one’s faith.  Luther cites Jesus when confronted by the Jews what the work of God was, “to believe on Him whom He hath sent…” (Jn.6: 27-29).

Commands Teach Us What is Good, But They Do Not Help Us Obey

Precepts (commands) teach us what is good “thou shall not…” but it does not empower us to obey.  Once one understands the aforementioned, that person is ready to believe the promises of God, which by faith aids the obeying of commands, “the promises of God give that which the precepts exact” p.11 (see; 1 Tim.1: 9).  To disbelieve God’s promises is the highest form of insult toward Him, while the converse is the greatest honor toward the Almighty (1 Sam. 2:30).  Among other things Luther makes a case for the priesthood of all believers and sees the system that separates “laity” from “priest”,  “clergy” etc., as bad because the notion is not biblical.

Why Are Good Works Commanded?

To the objection: “if faith is everything, and by itself suffices for justification, why then are good works commanded?  Are we then to take our ease and do no works, content with faith?”  Luther affirms no!  Pertaining to his freedom, man is justified (inwardly) subject to none, but concerning his works (outwardly) he is subject to all and the servant of all.  For Luther, those who belong to Christ crucify the flesh (Gal. 5:24), in his words: “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works” p.18 (Mt.7: 18).  He continues and asserts that good works prior to justification profit the non-believer nothing concerning salvation.  But Luther wholeheartedly embraced the doing and teaching of good works to the highest degree, especially directed toward others (Phil.2: 1-4) as imitators of Christ (Phil.2: 5-8).   The works, which overflow from the joy of being justified, the believer is not concerned with recognition or recompense from friend or foe.  Luther then uses the Virgin Mary, and St. Paul as examples of the aforesaid life.

Justification is the Grounds for Love

For Luther, the man justified by faith in Christ is the one who serves his neighbor by love.  The liberty of the justified is a freedom from all sins, laws, and commandments (1 Tim.1: 9), and a liberty from believing that good works makes one right before God.

 Luther, Table Talk on Justification[2]

In Luther’s Table Talk on Justification, he begins by asserting that it is impossible for the papist to understand this article.  One remains a child of God even though periodically he sin or be tempted, for he is the Shepherds lamb.  Christians make the best use of natural wisdom and understanding because through faith, their reason furthers their understanding of things divine, not so with the unregenerate.  Their understanding is darkened because it strives against faith.

For Luther, the workmen who continuously is improving his craft, is like the righteous who constantly strive to increase their faith.  Faith and Hope are distinguishable in that, among other things, the former; it looks to the word and promise of truth, whereas the latter; looks to that which the Word promises (i.e., the good or benefit).  Again, faith is necessary for salvation because man is justified by it before God through Christ the Lord.  Justification is the key doctrine for all theological disputation; one cannot merit it, it is an inheritance from the Father, it bears the fruit of generosity toward neighbor, it produces virtues (the greatest being patience) and good works in the believer.  Luther understands that a believer’s good works are incompletely good, because they proceed from a weak obedience.

Luther, Table Talk on the Church Fathers[3]

In Luther’s Table Talk on the church Fathers, he does not want to be too critical of the Fathers.  He considers Chrysostum a rhetorician whose exegesis goes awry concerning the message of the text.  On the one hand, Luther’s disgust with the following fathers are because justification is nowhere to be found: St. Jerome; for his writings are cold, Ambrose; for his books are poor, Augustine; for his inattention to faith in Galatians or Romans and his apparent siding with the Church’s authority.  On the other hand, Luther appreciates the writings of Epiphanius; who compiled a church history, and Prudentius; who is the best of Christian poets.

The Fathers must be read with caution.  Luther asserts this because: First, their exegetical methods draw attention away from the Gospel of Christ.  Second, their writings are used in a way that undervalues the teaching of Christ’s apostles.  Third, Augustine noted; the laws of the Jews brought less trouble to the church than the ordinances and traditions of the bishops.  For Luther, faithful Christians must heed the words of Christ and those who stray from them in their teaching, should be shunned.

Luther, Table Talk on the Scriptures[4]

In Luther’s Table Talk on the Scriptures, he views the Bible as the highest and best of all books.  He understands that rulers have tried to destroy the Bible, and its survival is seen as an act of God alone.  Luther compares it to the writings of Homer, Virgil, and the like, and concludes that there is no comparison, regardless of how fine and noble these antiquated books may be.  He is thankful that finally, the Bible is written in the German language for all to read and understand.

Part of the reason Luther sees the Bible as superior to the rest is because of it’s divine content of virtues and gift’s.  The Scriptures abound in comfort for those undergoing trials and tribulations.  They should be studied and judged not by mere reason alone, but in humility bathed with prayer.  Moreover, for Luther, the one who has mastered the principles of the text will not err in its interpretation, but will rather silence his adversaries.  He also affirms that the Bible is to trump the authority of the fathers, regardless of their value.  Again, Luther sees that the knowledge of God in Scripture supercedes any of the other sciences whether philosophers, or jurists for the effect it has on our eternal destiny.

Luther understands that there is no harder discipline of knowledge to master than that of divinity, even though worldly wisdom would hold the contrary position.  He sees the worse thing that could possibly happen to Christians is for the Word of God to be taken from them or falsified.  Among other things, Luther continues lauding the Scripture’s magnificence and comments on the many books of the Bible with the respective authors intended message (Judges, Proverbs, John, Paul, etc.), and the is a discussion on the different genres (example: Gospel parables).  For Luther, the ablest teacher of the Word is the one who so familiarizes with its every text, that the context, verse, and meaning of the passage are known.

[1] Concerning Christian Liberty: by Martin Luther 1520, “The Harvard Classics”, Volume 36 (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1910, Pages 353-397)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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Reflections From ROMANS 6:1-23 “JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH RESULTS IN SANCTIFICATION BECAUSE BELIEVERS ARE SLAVES TO GOD”

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            Whose slave are you?  In the last chapter Paul argued that the believers’ justification is truly certain because God acted in Christ before we came to be.  The last Adams’ obedience (Christ Jesus) secures our standing before God because it’s the gift of life which is unlike the first Adams’ rebellion which secured our death.  But now that grace has come in Christ, Paul asks a question:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”  (Vv.1-2)

             Certainly Paul encountered religious Jews who argued that if one is justified by faith through grace then people can go on sinning; living the same rebellious life as before their conversion.  That is, “since these people are eternally secure in Christ in their salvation, who cares how they live!”  But such a position completely misses the point.  The reason is because when believers belong to Christ, his death and resurrection are applied to them so that as Christ presently lives a new resurrected life, we too might walk in that life (Vv.3-4).  Paul continues:

For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.(Vv.5-7)

                It seems Paul is pointing to our mystical spiritual union with Christ such that in his crucifixion we actually died to sin and in His resurrection we actually have come to eternal life.  Spiritual unions in the Bible, among other things, concern sexual intercourse between two people whether married or not.  As the Bride of Christ, this union is real not imagined, it’s spiritual not physical.

The “old-self” is the pre-regeneration self that was dead in trespasses and sins (Eph.2:1-4) which has been killed so that we believers would no longer be slaves to sin.  Thus, the purpose of Christ’s crucifixion in which believers are identified, was to release them from the chains of sin.  Thus to think that sin increases and thus makes grace more glorious is to totally miss the point (V.1), for the fruit produced by Christ in believers is a new life.

Paul resumes with his argument pointing to Christ’s victory over the grave which signifies that death is no longer master over Him and He says a profound truth here:

10 For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

             Christ is the example believers are to follow here.  They are to consider themselves as dead to sin, that is, they are to live in the reality that sin is no longer their master, God is, for Christ has vanquished the grave.  Here, Paul is exhorting and encouraging believers to live in the reality of new birth which brings new life.  And where new life exists, the “old-self” which was already killed is to be rebelled against.  This metaphor points to the reality of what being in Christ produces.  Too often we listen to “old tapes” believing lies about ourselves.  Make no mistake about it believer: you are no longer a slave to sin.  So don’t obey its’ commands.

Paul is not denying that sin remains and must be battled, but he’s exhorting believers not to be enslaved to sin which Christ conquered, instead:

12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, 13 and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. 14 For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.

The righteous can and do sin, but not because they are under its’ mastery (Christ fixed that problem), but because the battle(s) remain to be fought.  They however must be fought from the truth that as freed men and women from sin our enemy is relentless and thus we must also be unyielding in battle.  Moreover, because believers are under grace, not under the Law (which only increased sin, never was it to produce new birth) this means we have a new master—Christ the Lord of Life.  Believer, how much more vibrant would our lives and witness be if we constantly lived in light of this truth.

Paul has thus answered the first objection which was based on the faulty premise that grace would produce increasing sin in believers.  No!  Grace actually produces new birth, new life and a new master which says, “You shall be holy for I am holy”.  This new life has been secured by Christs’ work of redemption and having said that; Paul does not deny that sin has vanished.  For when believers sin and repent grace does shine.  What Paul wants to accentuate however is that grace does not produce a sinful lifestyle, but one of sanctification.  Paul now asks a second question connected to the first one:

15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!” 

Here he continues explaining that whoever is obeyed (sin or righteousness) to that one we are slaves.  The former produces death, the latter generates life (V-16).  But as believers once obeyed sin and were thus slaves to death, now in Christ after new birth, they have become slaves of righteousness resulting in sanctification (Vv.17-21).  One master produces death, the other master produces life.  Note that everyone, according to Paul, is serving something other than themselves.  He continues:

20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. 22 But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

             Paul is concluding with what brings benefit and what brings destruction.  Sin while pleasurable for a time eventually yields death, but grace and new birth yield a life of grace and sanctification toward God which produces life.  Sin’s pay-off is death; graces’ pay-off is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

That is, if the Law (as described by Paul) is in what we trust to be right with God, then our end is death.  But if we trust as Abraham did in the free gift of God’s word of promise fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, then life is our end.  This smashes human pride on the one hand but on the other hand it calls for believers to walk humbly before our gracious God and the observant world.  (SDG)        

Reflection From ROMANS 5:6-21: “JUSTIFICATION IS ASSURRED THROUGH CHRIST—EVEN AS ADAM’S REBELLION WROUGHT DEATH”

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            Paul seems to want to assure the Roman believers that their justification is certain because God’s work of redemption occurred at the right time:

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.

Hardships might cause believers to doubt God’s goodness toward them (Vv.1-5), even their actual standing with God as judge.  But Paul argues that if while we were God’s enemies He showed His loved to us through Christ’s death, now, much more as His friends we must be confident that being justified now by Christ’s blood, God’s wrath is not ever again to be on us.

We are a lot of redeemed, reconciled sinners by the Savior (Vv.10-11).  Our state because of Adam’s rebellion assuredly resulted in death (Vv.12-14), but the free gift of God is not like the transgression.  This is because the transgression resulted in death and wrath, whereas God’s free gift brought life and mercy.

11 And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.  12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—13 for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.

The two Adams acted, the first disobeyed and thus death reigned, the second obeyed and thus life in Christ reigns.  The former brought condemnation to all men, the latter wrought justification for many (Vv.15-19)

15 But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. 16 The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. 17 For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.  18  So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. 19 For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.

Finally, the Law came to increase transgression, but in this increase, grace all the more abounded the purpose of which is that even as death reigned because of transgression, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Christ (Vv.20-21).  Here Paul brings attention to the power of grace and righteousness over sin and death.  He uses the phrase, “much more” to contrast and heighten God’s favor and instill confidence in the work of Christ over against Adam’s rebellion.

Justification can be banked on more than death which came through the creature Adam because God’s grace and gift of righteousness came through God the Son, whose life would be brought to bear on those who love Him, who love God the Father.  That’s amazing grace!  (SDG)

Reflections From ROMANS 4:1- 8“ABRAHAM WAS JUSTIFIED BY FAITH BEFORE THE LAW WAS GIVEN”

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Moving along, from Paul’s argument (3:21-31) that the establishment of the Law and the Prophets is the fulfillment of their message in Christ.  Here, both Jew and Gentile (who are presently condemned) can be justified by faith as a gift through grace by the redemption Christ alone offers.

Now, Paul continues unfolding the meaning of justification through grace alone apart from the Law by using Abraham as the example.  Consider this:

“What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness,”   

             Here, it seems to be clear that if Abraham were to be justified by the Law (which he wasn’t) he still could not boast before God—point?  But Abraham was justified by trusting in God.  This trust is not like the employee/employer relationship where the two need each other in order to flourish.  Instead, Abraham is receiving God’s favor because he trusts in God’s word of promise which precedes the Law.  The fact is that when one works for something, his wage is earned and justly due.  But the way to having righteousness credited to our account (as it was to Abraham) comes by faith alone, not by works as David attests:

just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered. “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”

Paul seems to be clearly establishing that righteousness is not something our souls intrinsically possess, but is a state of affairs credited to us because the believer trusts in God’s word of promise.  If that is labeled a “work” then it is a “work of faith/trust”, not a “work of Law”.  The former receives praise from God (2:29) and the latter gets the applause of man.