Archive for the 'Faith and Luther' Category


Saturday, September 30th, 2006

The deepest problem that faces the church today is what is meant by faith. Salvation by faith was the catch cry that came out of the Reformation and, to this day, it is supposedly the Gospel that is preached the length and the breadth of the land. Luther is the man that most claim to be responsible for steering Christianity back to where it ought to be, anchored on scripture, preaching a gospel of faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins. But what we must ask ourselves however is, "Is this really the case?" Did Luther really steer the church back from where it had strayed? Has the church through his reforming zeal arrived back to mirror the faith that was visible in the early church? Do we look back at the Protestant beginnings and feel a sense of awe because of the mighty working of the power of God, or do we see a man bravely standing against the might of a powerful corrupt church, giving others the courage to break free from the chains of oppression and to begin to look again at what is contained in scripture. A bit like King Josiah in the Old Testament rediscovering the books of the Law and then needing to consult the prophet as to what they meant.

It must be luminously clear that a man can see the error of a particular way of belief without necessarily knowing ultimate truth. We see this every day in the world. Just because, for example, I can see the error of communism or fascism it does not mean that I know the way to life. So too, just because Luther knew that the Catholicism of his day was wrong, does not mean that he knew God, or that his subsequent struggles to understand scripture mean that he arrived at inerrancy concerning faith. It is strange that Protestants, who deny the very concept of Papal infallibility and for this and other doctrinal reasons have rejected Catholicism, do not observe that their tenacious clinging to the doctrinal positions of their particular founding reformer have all the hallmarks of the errors of the Catholic tradition they reject.

The text that seemed to enlighten Luther was the line from Paul's letter to the Romans, "The just shall live by faith." This then became the defining statement, the cornerstone of modern theology – faith. Luther's obvious delight in this dawning light was, in no small measure, due to its damning of the Catholic tradition of the need for penitential works to receive full forgiveness of sins. As this Catholic practice was leading the ignorant and the poor to give their wealth, however mean that might have been, to the church to obtain indulgences, was good reason for Luther's delight in finding scriptural authority for his abhorrence of such blatant evil. However, as so often happens, the reformer exchanged one bad practice for another. While the reformers found they were free from paying a tax to the church for its sacramental forgiveness, they adopted in its place a practice that meant an individual's conscience could too easily believe it had peace with God through "faith", never fully facing the horror of the depth of their stumbling and therefore making light of what it cost Jesus to forgive sin. Repentance comes when we gaze upon Him, in His suffering love, and truly know the complete horror of our sin and how He suffered to forgive us. In other words you cannot say you love Christ and continue to do the deeds that caused Him so much grief. I may know that God is merciful and just and have faith that he is willing to forgive me my trespass, but until I have finally faced the full depth of my sin and repented I will not receive His forgiveness. The reformers had freed the people from their bondage to Rome but had they brought them any closer to God?

This is an important question and one that the reformers failed to ask. Was the faith that Luther preached "real faith"? After all, it can obviously be argued that the Catholic Church preached faith, but it was a different understanding of what faith meant from what the reformers clearly held faith to mean. Luther taught a new faith, a better faith, but was it the faith that Paul himself lived by when he wrote the letter that Luther now claimed to understand and live by? Had the Reformation really discovered the faith that was revealed at Pentecost or not?

Luther was a man who had become a monk, a servant of God, out of fear rather than love. He saw himself as a victim of the Church's teachings, albeit a willing one (he didn't after all have to become a monk). He felt in this some affinity with Paul who was once a Pharisee. However, whereas we know little of Paul's feelings and beliefs concerning God before his conversion, we do have some understanding of Luther's spiritual state before he felt justified by faith. Basically he felt anger and resentment toward God, whom he felt to be unfair, a hard taskmaster and a harsh judge. So in a sense we see his hypocrisy and his desperation. While serving the Church with his mouth he was hating God with his heart and desperately seeking reconciliation for his troubled conscience. He wanted peace for his soul, but did he ever really find true peace? Did he ever arrive at the faith of Paul?

Paul was struck blind by Christ. The repentance he found was not an assurance that he was justified by faith, but rather he was confronted with the total reality that he was living a lie. All of Paul's feelings and beliefs, all of his pursuits done in the name of faith, were revealed to him in that one action, as being without foundation.

Paul was left with nowhere to turn, he had no one to lean on, his own understanding had been revealed to him as bankrupt, he knew himself to be entirely at God's mercy. He knew he was a dead man, caught out in a lie, because he had lived a life based on his own understanding of the words of God without knowing God Himself. Repentance in him was absolute, for the entire ground of his being was placed before him as being untenable. He knew that to live he had to totally turn to God; for he knew there was nothing in himself that was trustworthy. That is not to say that he went from being Saul the blasphemer to Paul the Apostle in the twinkling of an eye, for he had truly just become a babe. A man who has just been caught out in that level of deceit has yet to grow to maturity in a new relationship based on real faith, before he can go out with any confidence to preach. The point I am making is that there is repentance and there is repentance, just as there is faith and there is faith.

I don't get any feeling that Luther arrived at that total devastation of self. He certainly wrote that a true Christian needs to be naked before God, stripped of all that he calls his own. But there is a vast difference between knowing the principle, even feeling you have experienced the truth of the statement, and actually knowing the absolute nakedness of your life as Paul experienced. The reason I ask this question concerning Luther is because he writes, "Man is always in not being, in becoming, in being, always in privation, in potentiality, in act, always in sin, in justification, in righteousness, that is, always a sinner, always penitent, always righteous." Which all makes him sound like one of those "weak women weighed down with sins", spoken of by Paul in his letter to Timothy, "always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth." But a man who has fully faced his shame, does not keep returning like a dog to his vomit, but rather in full repentance seeks mercy and is fully clothed in God's loving forgiveness.

This faith that believes in forgiveness without perfect repentance is the malady that besets the entire church. Not only do they lack repentance but also they have made this lack of repentance a doctrinal necessity, for the church preaches, as does Luther, that it is impossible for a man to reach perfection before he dies. This in effect means that it is impossible for man to love God as he ought, as if Jesus dying for me is insufficient to really make me change and keep from sin. Luther presents this as his conviction in the introduction to his commentary on the book of Romans where he writes, "The gifts and the Spirit increase in us every day, though they are not yet perfect, and there remains in us the evil lust and sin that war against the Spirit." Now I know this to be an untrue statement, for God gives us His Holy Spirit without measure. How will the Father of Light give less than perfectly to his children? So if the gift is given perfectly, without measure, then what is lacking in our receiving is our faith. In other words the faith that says, "I cannot receive the fullness of forgiveness in this life" is not faith at all, for it is spoken from an unrepentant heart. I cannot by the power of the Holy Spirit say it is impossible to arrive at perfect obedience and love and trust and goodness in this life. For Paul prays in his letter to the Ephesians, "For this reason. I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives it name. That He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, that you being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen."

Now if that isn't a statement of the perfection of the power of the grace poured out toward us in Christ, then what is? If He is able to do more than we ask, then let us ask nothing less than we could dare hope. With sincere longing let us ask that we might walk in full fellowship with Him as He has promised. For if God is for us who is against us. Let us pray then for perfect unity, perfect trust, perfect love that we might walk in the perfect worship of God, which is the sum joy and glory, the fullness of life.

If we claim we cannot attain to these heights in this life because of the power of sin in our members, then who are we serving? What is lacking is desire on our part, for God does not deprive us of any good thing. This then is the heresy that has crept into the church imperceptably, unchallenged and unnoticed in the midst of the euphoria of the Reformation – a faith without repentance. It is as if a new commandment has been written, "I must sin, I can do no other!"