Reformation 500

Dear Church Family,

Yesterday was the official date of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In our Sunday morning worship services throughout the month of October, we looked at several of the distinctive marks of the reform that Martin Luther brought to the Church. So, I thought I would take this opportunity to review some of those things that we talked about.

Justification by faith alone

The central theme of Martin Luther’s reformation was one of doctrine: a clear understanding and teaching of the gospel. Specifically, that man is justified by faith alone in Christ alone. While agonizing over his own sin, and through his study of the Scriptures, Luther finally came to realize this truth. One text that was critical to his breakthrough is from the first chapter of the book of Romans:

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” (Romans 1:16-17)

 

Thus arriving at the biblical conclusion that we are justified by faith as God imputes Christ’s righteousness to His people, Luther declared that Christians are simul iustus et peccator (“simultaneously righteous and a sinner”). We confess that we are still sinners (1 John 1:8-2:2), yet we are also declared righteous by faith in Christ.

Worship as Christian discipleship

In contrast to the Roman Catholic view of the Mass, Luther came to see worship as a means of growing in grace, essential to Christian discipleship (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:18-21). There are three emphases in Luther’s reform of worship that were a result of this shift.

First, Luther rightly recognized that worship is a benificium (“a gift” from God), rather than a sacrificium (a “sacrificial work” on man’s part). He came to see that the Mass and other rites of the church were presumptive works of man who sought to “wrest heaven from God…just as though He must serve us and were our debtor, and we His liege lords” (Luther’s Large Catechism, I, 22).

Second, while the Mass centered on the sacraments, Luther sought to make the preaching of the Word central in worship and the means by which God saved: “For neither you nor I could ever know anything of Christ, or believe on Him, and obtain Him for our Lord, unless it were offered to us and granted to our hearts by the Holy Ghost through the preaching of the Gospel” (Luther’s Large Catechism, II, 38).

Third, Luther sought to bring the whole of the congregation into participation in worship. In addition to translating the New Testament into German, Luther also wrote many hymns. Where once the service was conducted entirely in Latin (and mostly by the priest), Luther wrote hymns in the common tongue of the people that were meant to be sung by all. He included the singing of Psalms and hymns in the arsenal of spiritual warfare: For, as Luther wrote, “Undoubtedly, you will not start a stronger incense or other fumigation against the devil than by being engaged upon God’s commandments and words, and speaking, singing, or thinking of them. For this is indeed the true holy water and holy sign from which he flees, and by which he may be driven away” (Luther’s Larger Catechism, Introduction, 10).

A Theology of the Cross

In protest against the selling of indulgencies and other abuses of the Church, Luther published his ninety-five theses on October 31, 1517; however, it wasn’t until several months later at the Heidelberg Disputation on April 26, 1518, that Luther gave a more full expression to his understanding of a “theology of the cross” as compared to a “theology of glory”:

19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened (Rom. 1:20; cf. 1 Cor 1:21-25),
20. he deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
21. A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.
22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.

 

Jesus spoke of how He, as the Christ and Son of Man, must suffer many things, be rejected by men, killed, and then after three days rise again. Here, Jesus was articulating what Luther might have called a “theology of the cross.” Yet, the Apostle Peter had bought into a “theology of glory,” rebuking Jesus for speaking in such a way. In response, our Lord rebuked Peter saying, “Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests but on man’s” (Mark 8:27-38).

So, with the Apostle Paul, Luther argued that God’s power is perfected in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10); therefore, we ought not to look to man’s interests (any form or worldly wisdom or power), but to God’s interests (the foolishness of the gospel). Ministers of the gospel – and all believers – are to boast in nothing else but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Galatians 6:14; 1 Corinthians 1:21-25).

Conclusion

In a recent article, written for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Michael Horton argues that modern evangelicalism is more a product of the Radical Anabaptist movement (which has its roots in medieval mysticism) then it is of the Reformation. In the conclusion of his article, Horton asks:

So what exactly are we celebrating in this year of the Reformation’s five hundredth anniversary? Are we rejoicing in the reformation of the church’s doctrine and worship, away from human-centered religion to a faith centered on the Triune God and the gospel of his saving grace in Christ alone, received through faith alone, communicated through the word and the sacraments alone? Or are we celebrating the Radical enthusiasm that our culture mistakes as the Reformation: the autonomous self, individualism, free will, and inner experience and reason?

 

I tend to agree with Horton’s conclusions (I encourage you to read the entire article online here). As heirs of the Protestant Reformation, we have many things to be grateful for. And, it behooves us to remember what the Reformation was really all about by returning to the teachings of the magisterial Reformers like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. It’s why it’s so important to be a part of a confessional church that adheres to a Reformed confession (in our case, the Westminster Confession of Faith) as a summary of the doctrines that are taught in the Scriptures. As Horton encourages us, “Now that we have tried Radical Protestantism for several centuries, the best way of celebrating the Reformation would be to give it a chance again to be heard.”

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Church History and Theological Triage

Dear Church Family,

In the adult Sunday school class, we have been studying “Turning Points in Church History,” following the outline of the book Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity by Mark A. Noll. And so, we have examined the fall of Jerusalem (70 AD), the Council of Nicaea (325), and the Council of Chalcedon (451).

Church History

In learning about the major ecumenical councils of the early church, we have seen God’s people wrestled with the proper understanding of the Trinity (the three Persons of the Godhead) and the proper understanding of the hypostatic union of the two natures (divine and human) in the one Person of Jesus Christ. The creeds and statements that have been preserved and handed down to us (i.e., the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition) serve as important benchmarks of orthodoxy.

In our most recent class, as we discussed the importance of the Christology of the Chalcedonian Definition (Jesus Christ is one Person with two natures), we talked about how there are churches today that do not accept this council or this doctrine: Oriental Orthodox Churches (Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, and Ethiopian) and the Assyrian Church of the East (predominantly in Iraq).

Theological Triage

During our discussion, in an effort to answer the questions that arose about the importance of doctrines that separate Christians from non-Christians, as well as Christians from one another, I introduced the concept of “theological triage.” In raising this concept, I borrowed from an article that I read years ago by Al Mohler, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.”

Mohler posits that just as medical personnel must assess and triage patients (assigning varying degrees of relative importance to particular conditions), the Christian must learn to conduct theological triage with respect to doctrines that have varying degrees of importance. Thus, Mohler describes three levels of theological issues:

(1) First-level theological issues: those doctrines that are essential to the Christian faith (they separate Christians from non-Christians). Here, Mohler lists such crucial doctrines as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture. Mohler writes, “These first-order doctrines represent the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself.”

(2) Second-order theological issues: those doctrines over which various Christian traditions differ (they separate churches and denominations). Here, Mohler lists infant and credo-baptism, covenant theology, and the ordination of women. Mohler writes, “Many of the most heated disagreements among serious believers take place at the second-order level, for these issues frame our understanding of the church and its ordering by the Word of God.”

(3) Third-order theological issues: those doctrines over which Christians may disagree but remain in close fellowship (they separate individual Christians from one another). Here, Mohler describes the doctrine of eschatology and the specific details of the return of Christ. Mohler writes, “…standing together on issues of more urgent importance, believers are able to accept one another without compromise when third-order issues are in question.”

Mohler is quick to point out that this structure of theological triage doesn’t imply that there are any insignificant truths that are revealed in God’s Word. Still, understanding this structure does help to explain disagreements and confusion. Theological liberalism, points out Mohler, is the refusal to admit that first-order theological issues even exist, treating first-order doctrines as if they were third-order doctrines. On the other extreme, fundamentalism treats third-order doctrines as if they were of the first-order.

Conclusion

In our study of church history, understanding these three levels of “theological triage” is very helpful. As we have already seen, the doctrines which are taught in the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition are of the first-order. A proper understanding of the Trinity and the Person of Jesus Christ is essential to the Christian faith. Those churches and individuals who do not accept these doctrines are not Christian, but heretical.

This month, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. As we will see later in our class, some of the issues at stake in the eventual breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church were doctrines of the first-order: the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the authority of Scripture. These first-order issues that gave rise to the Reformation are issues that still divide Protestantism from the Roman Catholic Church.

Why is all of this important? Well, as we noted in the first session of our present Sunday school series, one of evangelicalism’s greatest weaknesses today is ambivalence, or even opposition to the study of history.

Understanding church history and the structure of “theological triage” teaches us to be discerning – to understand that there are first-order doctrines that separate us from other religions, and even from those who are Christian in name only. At the same time, understanding church history and the structure of “theological triage” teaches us humility – to understand that though there are second- and third-level doctrines that may separate us, we share a common faith with all true Christians.

In short, we learn how to be both “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

The Anchor of God's Two Books

Dear Church Family,

Many Christians know and refer to the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians as “the love chapter.” Because of its description of the epitome of love, 1 Corinthians 13 is often read at weddings. As Paul begins to summarize his thoughts, near the end of that chapter, he speaks of how the Christian longs to see His Savior in glory and to be made perfect: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). As he makes this point, he provides an illustration from everyday life:

When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. (1 Corinthians 13:11)

 

Call me a cynic or a pessimist, but I think this illustration is probably lost on most people today. You see, in this illustration, Paul is making a value judgment which he assumes to be universal (perhaps it was at the time): mature character is a virtue; childishness is a vice. Speaking, thinking, and reasoning as an adult is to be preferred to speaking, thinking, and reasoning as a child.

So why do I think that Paul’s illustration would probably be lost on most people today? Because, according to the ethos of our modern popular culture, there is no objective standard of what it means to be human as defined by our Creator (I’ve previously written about the givenness of what it means to be human, as well as the loss of the idea of human nature).

In my own estimation, this denial of inherent creational standards is manifested today in the intersection of a youth-centric culture and transgenderism (or anti-genderism).

A Youth-Centric Culture

Most of the popular culture that we consume encourages childish speaking, thinking, and reasoning. Ken Myers writes that in popular culture,

Youth itself is transformed from a matter of age into an ambiguous matter of attitude, defined by its rejection of boredom and its celebration of movement, change, energy: that is, fun. And this celebration is lived out in and inscribed upon the body in dance, sex, drugs, fashion, style and even the music itself. By contrast, in the view of biblical personhood, adulthood is a desirable telos. Paul regularly talks about perfection and completeness and maturity as aims for disciples. (Ken Myers, “Is Popular Culture Either?”)

 

Where once Paul could argue based upon the assumption that “adulthood is a desirable telos,” modern popular culture targets the youth, but seeks to increase its market-share by making adults nostalgic for the childishness of the youth culture.

Though anecdotal evidence, I couldn’t help but notice this extoling – and catering to – the youth culture in A-ha’s recent acoustic recording of “Take on Me.” In the video, the members of A-ha (now in their late fifties) sing a haunting version of their 1985 hit while middle-aged women weep and swoon, reliving the days of their romanticized youth. In our age of distraction, nostalgic sentimentality (which used to be something that one tried to avoid) has displaced wrestling with reality and the pursuit of man’s chief end (WSC 1).

Transgenderism (or Anti-Genderism)

In 2013, the Boy Scouts of America removed the restrictions that denied membership to youth based upon “sexual orientation.” Two years later, it lifted the ban on gay leaders. Earlier this year, it opened enrollment to “transgender boys.” In the latest casting off of any sort of recognition of the created order, last week the “Boy” Scouts opened its membership to girls, removing any notion of divinely-ordered gender differences.

This acceptance of “anti-genderism” is ubiquitous in popular culture. One can’t watch a television show today without the obligatory homosexual or “gender-neutral” character popping up. Again, as Ken Myers writes:

[The] invitation to moral autonomy is like a powerful bribe offered by popular culture. And what does it have to lose? Absolutely nothing. In fact, if you accept the bribe, you’ll give them money, either by buying their product or by watching their program. (Ken Myers, All God’s Children in Blue Suede Shoes, 69)

 

Modern individualism encourages each person to define their own social and aesthetic reality “apart from considerations about how the creation is ordered” (All God’s Children in Blue Suede Shoes, 85). In keeping with the desire to speak, think, and reason like a child, popular culture teaches us to not submit to the Creator who has made this world (and us) a certain way. Instead, we are encouraged to, like a spoiled child, throw a temper-tantrum and try to force the world to conform to our own individual whims.

Conclusion

In our youth-centric and anti-genderism culture, Christians must look to God’s two books of revelation (Scripture and nature (or the created-order)) as anchors of truth.

Scripture calls us to “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13). Nature teaches us that we are to put away childish things (speaking, thinking, and reasoning like a child), and maturation and wisdom are virtues to be desired.

Scripture tells us that “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). Nature teaches us that there are inherent and complementary differences between men and women, that these differences are a given, and that they are to be celebrated.

So, as Christians, we recognize that God speaks to us about these things in the two books of Scripture and nature. And, as these two books are in agreement. God’s revelation gives us anchors to cling to amidst the ever-changing winds of popular culture. As Christians, it behooves us, therefore, to give priority (in our submission and our time) to God’s truth, revealed in His two books, and not to the wisdom of the world.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Improving Our Baptism

Dear Church Family,

This past Sunday, we had the privilege of participating in the reception of a family into membership and the sacrament of baptism. I deliberately use the word “participating” rather than “observing” in an effort to remind us that all of the worship service is to be participatory. Even when it seems like we are passive observers, like during the sermon, our confession reminds us that we should employ careful listening (“conscionable hearing of the Word,” WCF 21.5). We are actively participating. And, so it is with the reception of new members and the sacrament of baptism.

One of the ways that we participate in receiving new members and the baptism of other people is by remembering our own vows of membership and the meaning of our own baptism. It’s sort of like when a married couple attends a wedding. In observing the vows that are taken by the newlyweds, those in attendance are reminded of their own wedding vows; and, they ought to consider ways that they may renew and recommit themselves to those vows which were made many years before.

Participating in the baptism of another person is sort of like that. For this reason, the Westminster Larger Catechism reminds us of when, and how, we are to improve our baptism:

WLC 167  How is our baptism to be improved by us?
A. The needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavouring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.

 

This catechism question exhorts us to “improve our baptism” (to work out the implications of our baptism in our daily lives): (1) all our life long; (2) especially in the time of temptation; and (3) when we are present at the administration of it to others.

Then, the catechism lists several ways as to how to we are to improve our baptism. For better understanding and application to our lives, I’ve broken these down and fleshed them out into five categories:

(1) We improve our baptism by serious and thankful consideration of…

  1. The nature of baptism: baptism symbolizes our union with Christ in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5), the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).
  2. The ends for which Christ instituted baptism: baptism reminds us of the power of Christ’s death and resurrection by which we might walk in newness of life.
  3. The privileges and benefits conferred and sealed by baptism: baptism marks us as belonging to Christ and to His church.
  4. Our solemn vow made in our baptism: whether a person was baptized as an infant or upon profession of faith, believers have vowed to submit and follow Christ above all others.

(2) We improve our baptism by being humbled for:

  1. Our sinful defilement: we confess the remnants of corruption that still remains in us.
  2. Our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements: we confess our “passive” and “active” sins (“the want of conformity unto, and transgression of the law of God,” WSC 14; Romans 6:2).

(3) We improve our baptism by growing up into assurance of:

  1. Pardon of sin: baptism reminds us that through the resurrection of Christ, God has forgiven our sin. Just as Noah and his family were brought safely through the waters of God’s judgment in the ark, baptism reminds us that Christ died for our sins once for all, the just for the unjust (1 Peter 3:18-22).
  2. All other blessings sealed to us in baptism: like circumcision of the old covenant, baptism is a sign and seal of the new covenant in which God promises to credit Christ’s righteousness to all those who believe and trust in Him (Romans 4:11-12).

(4) We improve our baptism by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized for (Romans 6:5-18):

  1. The mortifying of sin: by faith, we have been united to Christ in His death; therefore, we have died to sin and are no longer enslaved to it.
  2. The quickening of grace: by faith, we have been united to Christ in His resurrection; therefore, we have been made alive in Him and become slaves of righteousness.

(5) We improve our baptism by endeavoring to live by faith:

  1. To have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have given up our names to Christ: (the older definition of “conversation” is “conduct or behavior”) baptism symbolizes how, by faith in Christ, we have clothed ourselves with Christ (Galatians 3:26-27). Thus, we are freed from sin and enslaved to God, resulting in our sanctification (Romans 6:22).
  2. To walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body: by one Spirit, we are baptized into one body, the body of Christ, the church. Therefore, we are to care for, suffer and rejoice with, other believers in the church body.

Conclusion

If I were to simplify the teaching of this catechism question (perhaps over-simplify it), I would boil it down to three points that we ought to remember about baptism, three points that will help us to work out the implications of our baptism in our daily lives:

(1) Baptism reminds us of God’s promise to forgive our sins, make us new creations, and give us eternal life.

(2) Baptism reminds us of that in order for us to receive and benefit from God’s promises made in baptism, we must place our faith in Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection.

(3) Baptism reminds us that the Lord calls us, by the help of the promised Holy Spirit, to walk in newness of life – to die to sin and to live unto righteousness.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch