Tag Archives: Martin Luther

Three Christmas Miracles

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Luke 1:38

The word, “miracle” is used in television commercials for the cleaning properties of a particular soap. “It’s a miracle!” that I got a pay raise from that miserly company. Miracle has come to mean anything unexpected that brings pleasant results. The expression, “It’s a miracle” has now become trite and meaningless in our culture.

Conversely in theology, a miracle is an extraordinary event revealing God’s intervention in the everyday affairs of men and women. Martin Luther comments on the three miracles of Christmas day: the incarnation, the virgin birth of Christ, and the Blessed Virgin Mary’s obedience. Luther marvels that the greater of the three miracles is Mary’s faith: her willingness to obey God even though it meant hardship, misunderstanding, and loss of reputation.

Saint Bernard [of Clairvaux] declared there are here three miracles: that God and man should be joined in this Child; that a mother should remain a virgin; that Mary should have such faith as to believe that this mystery would be accomplished in her. The last is not the least of these three. The virgin birth is a mere trifle for God; that God should become man is a greater miracle; but most amazing of all is that this maiden should credit the announcement that she, rather than some other virgin, had been chosen to be mother of God.

Had she not believed, she could not have conceived. She held fast to the word of the angel because she had become a new creature. Even so must we be transformed and renewed in heart from day-to-day. Otherwise, Christ is born in vain.

Martin Luther, “The Maiden Mary” in Nancy Guthrie, ed., Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2008), 26.

Faith Alone in Christ Alone

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has become a child of God.

1 John 5:1 NLT

Faith is a response of the heart which receives what God has already done for me in Christ. Faith is relying on God’s character, standing on God’s promises, believing God’s Cross, and obeying God’s Spirit with a certainty that surpasses physical sight and human reasoning.

In my heart, I am assured that God’s faithfulness will bring God’s Word to pass in my circumstances, intervening in my life, and meeting my needs. Faith says that Christ’s shed blood is more than sufficient to forgive my sins, Christ’s death on the Cross defeats Satan’s hold on my life, and Christ’s glorious resurrection conquers the world’s influence, the flesh’s control, sin’s grip, and death’s defeat over me.

Faith, if it is to be sure and steadfast, must lay hold upon nothing else but Christ alone, and in the conflict and terrors of conscience it has nothing else to lean on but this precious pearl Christ Jesus. So, he who apprehends Christ by faith, although he be terrified with the law and oppressed with the weight of his sins, yet he may be bold to glory that he is righteous. How? Even by that precious jewel Christ Jesus, whom he possesses by faith.

Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books,1998),99.

Faith is looking away from ourselves to another. Faith is total dependence on another. When faith stands in front of a mirror, the mirror becomes a window with the glory of Christ on the other side. Faith looks to Christ and enjoys him as the sum and judge of all that is true and good and right and beautiful and valuable and satisfying.

John Piper, “Assessing Ourselves With Our God-Assigned Measure of Faith, Part 1.”

(HT: Ray Ortlund)

Donkey Ears

Addicted to Praise

Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall.

Prov. 16:18

In 1998, John Piper visited Beeson Divinity School for a three day lecture series on preaching. During one of the sermons, he admitted that he was addicted to praise. The type of praise Piper was describing are the compliments and attention one receives after preaching a good, or maybe great, sermon.

Piper told the story of recently speaking at Wheaton College, his alma mater, and no one, absolutely no one, came up to him afterwards and thanked him for his message. Piper said that he walked around campus for some time talking to himself wondering what went wrong and asking himself why he had to have constant affirmation to feel good about his ministry.

Piper’s admission is a powerful one, all preachers struggle with desiring the encouragement of others. Yet, we know that the gospel word we share may very well bother, offend, and convict the very people we look to for praise.

The temptation lurks that when we receive the admiration and praise for which we long, we think we have arrived, and therefore accomplished great things for God. Martin Luther calls this kind of pride: donkey ears. Why? Donkey ears dominate the animal’s appearance just like a preacher’s pride in their own accomplishments.

If, however, you feel and are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books, teaching, or writing, because you have done it beautifully and preached excellently; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others; if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it—if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do this in the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears.

Then do not spare any expense! Decorate them with golden bells, so that people will be able to hear you wherever you go, point their fingers at you, and say, “See, see! There goes that clever beast, who can write such exquisite books and preach so remarkably well.” That very moment you will be blessed and blessed beyond measure in the kingdom of heaven. Yes, in that heaven where hellfire is ready for the devil and his angels.

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 34:287-288, cited in Timothy George, Reading Scripture with the Reformers (Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 2011), 164.

HT: Between Two Worlds 

Faith Is God’s Work in Us

Faith

And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.

Acts 15:8-9

Faith is a response of the heart which receives what God has already done for us in Christ. Faith is relying on God’s character, standing on God’s promises, believing God’s Cross, and obeying God’s Spirit with a certainty that surpasses physical sight and human reasoning. Faith ignores bad circumstances, negative feelings, or discouraging thoughts to stand on God’s word and walk in his ways (Isa. 55:8-9). In short, faith simply believes what God says is true.

True faith passively receives the benefits of Christ’s victory on the cross resulting in active obedience to Christ’s commands and acquiescence to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Saving faith does not involve meriting salvation by human work. However, genuine faith will bear good fruit: an expression of the life of Christ in us. Good deeds are not the foundation of our acceptance with God, but the correct response and fruit of a living relationship with him.

Faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith.

Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever. He stumbles around and looks for faith and good works, even though he does not know what faith or good works are. Yet he gossips and chatters about faith and good works with many words.

Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Definition of Faith: An Excerpt, “An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” Luther’s German Bible of 1522.

 

 

The Theologian of Glory

The Heidelberg Disputation

[Jesus] gave up his divine privileges he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Phil 2:7-8 NLT

The years of 1517 and 1519 are of the utmost importance in the life of Martin Luther. The latter date is the famous debate with Johannes Eck in Leipzig and the former date is the posting of the 95 Theses on indulgences in Wittenberg. The middle year is often thought of as the silent year, that of 1518. However, a significant event occurred in the history of theology of that year, it is called the Heidelberg Disputation. In April of that year, Johannes von Staupitz, the vicar-general of the Augustinian order of which Luther was a monk, invited him to discourse on his new ideas. Every year the Augustinian order would meet for a public disputation in Heidelberg. Staupitz instructed Luther not to discuss his more controversial views about the Pope and Church Authority, but to share his new understanding of the righteousness of God. This was Luther’s first great opportunity to share his insights, which he called the theology of the cross. Crux sola est nostra theologia is in opposition to what Luther called the theology of glory.

The “theologian of glory” calls the bad good and the good bad. The “theologian of the cross” says what a thing is. . . . Without a theology of the cross, man misuses the best things in the worst way.

Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenburger (New York: Anchor Press, 1961), 503.

The theologian of glory prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and in general, good to evil. . . . God can only be found in suffering and the cross. . . . Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are dethroned and the old Adam, who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.

Martin Luther cited in Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 81.

 

Crux Sola Est Nostra Theologia

The Cross Alone Is Our Theology

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Col. 2:8

This blog is dedicated to Christ and his finished work on the Cross. Paraphrasing the words of Martin Luther, the Cross alone is this blog’s theology. Why? The Cross is our victory over the oppression and enslavement of sin (1 Cor. 15:57), our justification that satisfies the penalty of sin (Rom. 4:25), our adoption which grants us the legal status of a son of God and an heir of the kingdom (Rom. 8:17, 23), our reconciliation which restores our broken relationship with God (2 Cor. 5:19), our forgiveness of offenses as a result of his pain and suffering on Calvary, our ransom paid to free us from the captivity of sin (1 Cor. 6:19), our healing from brokenness created by our sin (Isa.53:5), our representative bringing us all the privileges of the new covenant (Rom. 5:17), our participation in all the benefits of his death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6), and our substitution for he took upon himself our punishment, guilt, and shame (Rom. 4:25).

Christ died for us (substitution) now we are controlled by Christ’s love for us and our love for Christ (motivation). As a result, our hearts are changed (transformation) and therefore, we can now live fully for the Christ who died for us (surrender).

Crux Sola Est Nostra Theologia.  And I shall never forget the first time I encountered those words of Martin Luther.  I have arrived at Cambridge in 1978, fresh from the study of theology at Oxford, and had begun a process of total immersion in the field theological literature of the Reformation.  Having cut my theological teeth on Karl Barth, I decided to deepen my knowledge of two fundamental forces of modern religious thought Martin Luther and John Calvin.  It was during the spring of 1979 that I came across those words. They seemed to leap of the page, ‘The cross alone is our theology.’ I stopped taking notes and paused to think.  Luther’s declaration seemed electrifying charged with power, potential, and challenge.

It also seemed absurd.  How could a past event have such present day relevance? And why should it be this event? Why conceivable justification to be given for this collective attention, this concentration upon the cross? To demonstrate how that focus arose within a Luther’s theology in spiritual malady was one thing; but how could the cross function as the core of Christian theology in a dominated by the insights of the Enlightenment? Molded as I then was by the English liberal theological tradition, I eventually dismissed Luther’s approach as outdated and obsolete, of interest only to historians of doctrine in early Reformation Theology.  They could have no place in modern Christian Thought.  I resumed taking notes.

Nevertheless, his words remain in my mind.  Somehow they seem to capture something that I intuitively felt was indefinably wrong with the gentle theological liberalism with which I then identified myself.  Looking back on the development of my thinking since then, Luther’s brief phrase proved to be the rock, which my liberalism floundered.  The ‘theology of the cross,’ through which Luther challenged his own age to allow the cross of Christ to assume center stage proved able to challenge modernity!

Alister E. McGrath, Spirituality in an Age of Change (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 75-76.

 

Luther on the Three Miracles of Christmas

The Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, and Mary’s Faith

The word, “miracle” has become trite and meaningless. The word, “miracle” is used in television commercials for the cleaning properties of a particular soap. “It’s a miracle!” that I got a pay raise from that miserly company. Miracle has come to mean anything unexpected that brings pleasant results.

Theologically, a miracle is an extraordinary event revealing God’s intervention in the everyday affairs of men and women. Martin Luther comments on the three miracles of Christmas day: the incarnation, the virgin birth of Christ, and the Blessed Virgin Mary’s obedience. Luther marvels that the greater of the three miracles is Mary’s faith: her willingness to obey God even though it meant hardship, misunderstanding, and loss of reputation.

Saint Bernard [of Clairvaux] declared there are here three miracles: that God and man should be joined in this Child; that a mother should remain a virgin; that Mary should have such faith as to believe that this mystery would be accomplished in her. The last is not the least of these three. The virgin birth is a mere trifle for God; that God should become man is a greater miracle; but most amazing of all is that this maiden should credit the announcement that she, rather than some other virgin, had been chosen to be mother of God.

Had she not believed, she could not have conceived. She held fast to the word of the angel because she had become a new creature. Even so must we be transformed and renewed in heart from day-to-day. Otherwise, Christ is born in vain.

Martin Luther, “The Maiden Mary” in Nancy Guthrie, ed., Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2008), 26.

God of the Humble, Miserable, and Afflicted

God of the Hurting

So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor.

1 Peter 5:6 NLT

Humility is seeing yourself as God sees you: dark yet lovely (Song of Songs 1:5), weak yet strong (2 Cor. 12:9), and poor yet spiritually rich (2 Cor. 5:21). Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking less about yourself. Humility is not denigrating yourself by making yourself out to be less than the total person that God has gifted and called you to be as his servant.

Humility is admitting your weaknesses, calling out to God for help, and depending completely on his strengthening grace. Humility is surrendering yourself to God the Father by allowing him to do in your life whatever he pleases, irrespective of what others might say about you or do to you. Humility is not allowing people to walk over you, but humility is allowing Christ to live his life in and through you.

[God is] the God of the humble, the miserable, the afflicted, the oppressed, the desperate, and of those who have been brought down to nothing at all…. [It is God’s character] to exalt the humble, to feed the hungry, to enlighten the blind, to comfort the miserable and afflicted, to justify sinners, to give life to the dead, and to save those who are desperate and damned.

Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians (1535)

HT: writing in the dust

Laying Hold of the Promise

The Promise of Salvation in Christ

Consequently, he [Jesus] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

Heb. 7:25

Saving faith believes God’s word and actions in Jesus Christ while staking our lives on His promises.  Faith relies on God’s guarantee in Christ that all our sins have been forgiven, forgotten, and defeated. We are now bound in covenant to Christ placing our lives in his hands. His covenant is an binding promise that the Lord God will love us unconditionally all the days of our lives.

True faith passively receives the benefits of Christ’s victory on the cross resulting in active obedience to Christ’s commands and acquiescence to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Saving faith does not involve meriting salvation by human work. However, genuine faith will bear good fruit: an expression of the life of Christ in us. Good deeds are not the foundation of our acceptance with God, but the correct response and fruit of a living relationship with him.

More than merely mentally ascending to the basic facts of the gospel message; saving faith involves life-changing repentance, heart-felt surrender, and supernatural empowerment to obey. Saving faith grabs hold of the promise that all that Christ did on the Cross is more than sufficient for our salvation and more than powerful to change our lives.

Faith alone lays hold of the promise, believes God when He gives the promise, stretches out its hand when God offers something, and accepts what He offers. This is the characteristic function of faith alone. Love, hope, and patience are concerned with other matters; they have other bounds, and they stay within these bounds. For they do not lay hold of the promise; they carry out the commands. They hear God commanding and giving orders, but they do not hear God giving a promise; this is what faith does.

Faith is the mother, so to speak, from whom that crop of virtues springs. If faith is not there first, you would look in vain for those virtues. If faith has not embraced the promises concerning Christ, no love and no other virtues will be there, even if for a time hypocrites were to paint what seem to be likenesses of them.

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works: Lectures on Genesis, Vol. 3 (1961)

HT: Miscellanies

Ministry Like No Other (Part Two)

Pastoral Ministry: The Heart of a Father and a Mother

But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.

1 Thess. 2:7-8

Ministry is about people, if you do not like people, you will not like Christian ministry. The same manner in which Jesus ministered in the gospels is the same manner in which he will minister through you (Col. 1:27).

In turn, Jesus liked people. Therefore, those who minister in Jesus’ name will like people, too. Seminaries cannot teach you about people: only experience can provide insights into people’s peculiarities, choices, attitudes, and issues. On one hand, people will serve, encourage, and love others with an energy and life that is both surprising and delightful. On the other hand, people can act with the most devious and self-serving of intentions. Their behavior defies all the rules of gracious and loving behavior. These same people who are simultaneously bewildering and benevolent attend our churches and work in various parachurch ministries.

Pastoral wisdom recognizes that Christian people are imperfect and that these people are the people that God uses to advance his kingdom (2 Tim. 2:10). Pastoral care points people to Jesus, reminding them of his precious promises, and encouraging them to trust the Christ who died and rose again on their behalf (2 Peter 1:4). Pastoral counsel uses scripture to display God’s great grace and remind his people that Christ is available in power to live his life in and through them (1 John 4:9). Pastoral comfort makes available the sacramental grace of our Lord to the bewildered and hurting (1 Cor. 11:23-26).

A preacher must be a fighter and a shepherd. He must have teeth in his mouth. Teaching is a very difficult art. Paul contends (2 Tim 4:2; Titus 1:9), as does Peter (2 Peter 2), that sound doctrine must be urged and that those who contradict must be answered.

Men who hold the office of the ministry should have the heart of a mother toward the church; for if they have no such heart, they soon become lazy and disgusted, and suffering, in particular, will find them unwilling . . . . [Luther drawing from John 21 paraphrases the words of Jesus] Unless your heart toward the sheep is like that of a mother toward her children- a mother, who walks through fire to save her children- you will not be fit to be a preacher. Labor, work, unthankfulness, hatred, envy, and all kinds of sufferings will meet you in this office. If, then, the mother heart, the great love, is not there to drive the preachers, the sheep will be poorly served.

Martin Luther

HT: The Oversight of Souls