Tag: Theology

Miracles

by on Jun.18, 2008, under Essay, Theology

Question

How does an understanding of miracles as a limited foretaste of the consummated kingdom help us in approaching the question of miracles today? Should we expect similar miraculous occurrences today as are recorded in the NT? At a practical level, how should we go about dealing with sickness and other personal needs in our congregations?

Abstract

Miracles are a dividing issue for Christians and non-Christians alike. This essay will show that this is as it should be, since they are intended to provoke a response; that a concentration of miracles around the apostles does not mean that they are limited to the apostolic age; but that the Christian is to respond prayerfully, rather than powerfully, when facing needs of all kinds.

Essay

Miracles are inextricably linked with Christianity. Ask the man on the street what he knows of Jesus and he will likely describe one of two things: Jesus the Great Moral Teacher; or Jesus the Miracle Worker. Their motives and attitudes in doing so are many, across the entire spectrum from awe to skepticism. Opinions amongst Christians are scarcely less diverse. Most will agree that Jesus worked miracles himself, although that opinion is not universally held, even amongst Christians.1 Where the most substantial divergences of opinion occur, however, is in how we are to understand the significance of scriptural miracles in general and Jesus’ miracles in particular. Should Christians aspire to emulate this aspect of Jesus’ ministry? The question is not idle for, particularly in the case of healing miracles, the stakes are high; it is literally a question of life or death. To begin to answer this question, we must carefully consider the rôle miracles played in Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus declares his mission at the commencement of his ministry (Luke 4:16ff.), quoting from Isaiah 61:1-3:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for all those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

This is a messianic prophecy, and Jesus here proclaims himself as God’s Messiah. ‘Then he began to say to them. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”‘ (Luke 4:21). His listeners cannot have missed the royal implications of his statement; the Kingdom of God is ready to be inaugurated, the LORD’s favour is to be proclaimed; and miracles are the signposts that it is near. As Wayne Grudem (1994, 360) writes, the miracles of Jesus serve to ‘bear witness that the kingdom of God has come and has begun to expand its beneficial results into people’s lives’.

Saucy (1996) points out that Jesus seeks more than establishing the fact of the presence of the inaugurated kingdom. It is response that he desires, and Jesus’ teachings and works, including his miraculous works, are all geared towards eliciting a response. Thus it is no surprise that miracles form a point of divergence for Christians and non-Christians alike.
Wallis (1992) refines this: miracles free people to respond to God. This expectation of response is seen most clearly in Matthew 11:

Then [Jesus] began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. (Matt. 11:20).

John the Baptiser was the first to proclaim Jesus as Christ (John 1:29); later, in prison and facing death, John sends messengers to Jesus for confirmation that he was not mistaken (Matt. 11:2-6). To answer, Jesus points to his works: ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them’ (11:5) – referring to another messianic prophecy in Isaiah 35:5-6.
At least some portion of Jesus’ ministry, then, is a function of his unique identity as the Christ. But how much is unique, and how much is exemplary? Should Christians today seek to emulate Christ’s miraculous acts, or are they to follow another way? Were Jesus’ acts the works of incarnate God, or are they the works of Spirit-filled man?

For Warrington (2000), the answer is clear cut: Jesus’ miracles, and particularly his healings, ‘are uniquely linked to his mission to initiate the Kingdom’ and thus ‘it is difficult to see how believers today may emulate him’. Williams (1993) goes the other way, arguing from Luke 6:40 that Jesus trained his disciples to do as he did. ‘If Jesus trained His disciples to reproduce His message and ministry of the kingdom, then we should expect that they, in turn, were to train the Church to do the same.’

Unfortunately, Jesus does not provide us clear and explicit teaching on the difference between the unique and exemplary components of his works, nor does he offer us nice neat categories in which to understand his actions. We may, however, learn much from the commandments given to his disciples, and the example they set for the church that followed them.

In Luke 10, parallel to the passage we have just considered from Matthew 11, the judgment on the unrepentant cities is offered immediately following the successful mission of the 72, where the acts of power were done not by Jesus himself but by his disciples. Similarly, in the miracles of feeding the 5000 (Matt. 14:15-21; Mark 6:35-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:4-13), it is entirely possible that the multiplications took place in the disciples hands rather than in Jesus’. One must be wary of appropriating a mission not one’s own, particularly if unwilling to be subject to the same restrictions imposed on that mission, such as not going to the Gentiles or the Samaritans (Matt. 10:5) and not taking a bag (Luke  10:4) etc. (Carson 1992). Nevertheless, the impetus is clear: ‘proclaim the kingdom of God and… heal’ (Luke 9:2). The kingdom of God is here, and this is what it looks like.

John Wimber, in his influential work Power Evangelism (1985), seizes upon this idea. His reasoning is that the Kingdom is still here, and is still to be demonstrated. Many of the miracles recorded in Scripture, he suggests, have the effect of freeing people to respond to the gospel; he calls these events ‘power encounters’. Examples from the gospels include Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) and his numerous exorcisms (Matt. 8:28ff.; Matt. 9:32ff.; Mark 1:21ff. etc.). Wimber seems more interested, however, in the ‘power encounters’ found in Acts, which he considers to be normative for Christian experience. In Acts ‘we see the birth of a warrior nation, the army of God, the church’ (Wimber 1985, 134). The inauguration of God’s Kingdom brings it into conflict with the powers and principalities of the earthly kingdom. Though the decisive battle has been fought and won by Christ, the war rages on to this day.2

James Montgomery Boice, in his critique of Wimber’s teachings, notes that any Christian reader of Ephesians 6 cannot help but acknowledge the truth of spiritual warfare.
However, we will also remember that Ephesians 6 does not promote miracle-working as the way to do battle against Satan but instead admonishes us to be clothed with Christ’s righteousness and to be armed with “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (v. 17). The Spirit’s weapon, therefore, is not additional revelation, nor “power encounters,” but the written text of Holy Scripture. We are constantly reminded that the way to defend ourselves against Satan’s onslaught is not by miracles but by the effective proclamation and teaching of Scripture. (Boice 1992, 123)

According to Boice, Wimber’s writings demonstrate a serious shortcoming: they make much of the church working ‘signs and wonders’ and no mention of the gospel. It is ‘an evangelism without an evangel’ (129).

Aside from this issue, Boice’s primary criticism of the so-called ‘signs and wonders’ movement is that they appropriate the ‘signs of the apostle’ (Acts 2:43; Acts 5:12; 2 Cor. 12:12) for themselves. This is, in his view, an unwarranted hermeneutical leap as the apostles played a unique rôle in testifying to the risen Jesus and establishing the church. Boice is not the only one to draw this distinction; Warfield ([1918] 1972), Woodhouse (1987) and Carson (1992) are all in agreement with Boice on this point. This is not to say they teach a full cessation of genuine miracles after the apostles, but rather that the authority granted the apostles for miraculous signs and wonders is not transferable to their heirs. ‘We believe in a wonder-working God; but not in a wonder-working church.’ (Warfield [1918] 1972, 58)

Wayne Grudem (1994) argues strongly against this teaching. He outlines the scriptural evidence for limiting miracles to the apostle, claiming that the case rests primarily on two key texts: 2 Corinthians 12:12 and Hebrews 2:3-4. He then goes on to argue that, in 2 Corinthians 12, Paul is attempting to distinguish himself from non-Christian pretenders to the apostolic office, rather than non-apostolic Christians. Similarly, Grudem discounts arguments from Hebrews 2 as drawing more from the passage than is actually there. Even if it can be understood to mean that God confirms by miracles the words of those who heard Jesus, it says nothing of whether or not God will do likewise for those who have not directly heard him. Just because there is a particular concentration of miracles surrounding the apostles does not necessarily imply that they are only for the apostles.

Thus far we have considered miracles only on an a priori basis, but some adopt an a posteriori line of reasoning. Wimber (1985, 151-174), for example, furnishes us with a list of miracles attested throughout the history of the church, as well as a separate list for miracles of the 20th century. His implicit argument is that we should start with the fact that miracles in a Christian context occur today and we therefore should read and interpret Scripture in the light of this reality.

In a similar vein, Wenham (1986) notes the ebb and flow of miracles throughout the Old Testament, with peaks at the times of Moses, Elijah & Elisha, and a relative scarcity at other times. He sees a similar trend in the New Covenantal era, with miracles clustered around fresh movements of God’s Spirit in what are often termed ‘revivals’.

Contrast these with Warfield ([1918] 1972), who provides a more detailed list, drawn from much the same material, yet with vastly different conclusions. His stated argument is that there are few well-attested miracles in the 1st century; that those of the 2nd and 3rd centuries are syncretistic adoptions of heathen aretalogy; and that most, if not all, subsequent accounts of miracles are suspect as fiction legitimised by tradition. Clearly all three authors have their own agendas, and each claims historical evidence in his argument. Such an approach then is fraught with difficulty.

Even should one be able to establish beyond all doubt that genuine miracles have or have not occurred since the apostolic age, the application to the subject at hand must be carefully considered. Miracles have no intrinsic meaning; they are given meaning by the words that accompany them. Jesus warned that many would come working miracles in his name in an effort to deceive the elect (Matt. 24:24), and people on both sides of some of the most crucial theological divides claim miracles as vindication of their cause. As Warfield puts it, ‘heretics of all ages are at least as well provided with supporting miracles as the church itself’ ([1918] 1972, 67).3

We may summarise our findings thus far as follows: Jesus worked miracles, as attested by the canonical gospels, but there is doubt as to what proportion of his miraculous acts are paradigmatic for today’s Christians. Instead we look to the example and teaching of his disciples, who worked miraculously in the regular course of their ministry. Whilst noting the unique rôle of the apostles in establishing the church, there is no compelling reason to suppose that their miraculous works were done solely for this purpose, nor that they were intrinsically tied to their office as apostles. Thus we may rightly expect miracles today, as a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

But how much of God’s Kingdom should we expect to see manifest here on earth today? Casual readers of James 5:13-18 may be forgiven for believing that all illness and disease should be overcome through the simple expedients of confession, prayer and anointing. How then are we to reconcile this with our experience of suffering and death even amongst the most faithful of Christians?

‘Are any among you sick? They should call the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.’ (James 5:14). Kendall (2002, 288) rightly points out that the context is members of a church; this is not a mandate for us to go out and heal people in the street. Furthermore, he argues, the sickness described must be serious4, and the initiative lies with the person who is sick to call the elders; the elders are not instructed here to wander around the church looking for aches and sniffles to heal.

Kendall goes on to explore the link James draws between sickness and sin, noting that whilst sin is not always the cause of illness, sometimes it is (2002, 287). God does this for disciplinary rather than punitive reasons (Dickson 2006, 111-2). For this reason, it is one’s own elders to be called when sick, as they are the best suited for enquiring about sin and facilitating repentance (Shogren 1989).

What of the oil? It has been variously understood to represent: the medicine of the day; the Sacrament of Extreme Unction; a Psychological Reinforcement, i.e. a placebo; and a symbol of divine favour (Shogren 1989). Shogren, Kendall and Dickson all find agreement on the latter, with Kendall arguing that the oil performs the same symbolic function as the bread and the wine of the eucharist: ‘It’s a visual, tangible reminder of the Spirit and his power to heal’ (2002, 292).

James continues: ‘The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective’ (James 5:15-6). Prayer is key in James’ thinking. It is prayer that saves, rather than elders, oils or even faith. Kendall puts is aptly when he writes: ‘The prayer of faith takes place… when there is a simultaneous coinciding of the believer’s faith and God’s will’ (2002, 299).
As yet, we have only a limited foretaste of the Kingdom of God; we must live, act and teach accordingly. As Wallis (1992) writes,

if we stress the in-breaking of the kingdom in Jesus’s ministry, we raise hopes that freedom from suffering and healing will be experienced now; but if we offer the cross as the controlling symbol for Christian discipleship, we encourage the view that suffering is a necessary – if unpleasant – travelling companion through this life.

Reference List

Boice, J. M. 1992, “A Better Way: The Power of the Word and Spirit”, in M. S. Horton (ed.), Power Religion: The selling out of the evangelical church?, Homebush West: Anzea, 119-136.

Carson, D. A. 1992, “The purpose of signs and wonders in the New Testament”, in M. S. Horton (ed.), Power Religion: The selling out of the evangelical church?, Homebush West: Anzea, 89-118.

Dickson, J. 2006, James: The wisdom of the brother of Jesus, Sydney: Aquila.

Grudem, W. 1994, Systematic Theology, Nottingham: IVP, 355-375.

Kendall, R. T. 2002, The Way of Wisdom, Waynesboro: Authentic Media, 285-319.

Saucy, M. R. 1996, “Miracles and Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 153 (July-Sept 1996), 281-357.

Shogren, G. S. 1989, “Will God Heal Us – A Re-examination of James 5:14-16a”, EQ, 61/2 (1989), 99-108.

Wallis, I. G. 1992, “Christ’s continuing ministry of healing”, Expository Times, 104/3 (Nov 1992), 42-45.

Warfield, B. B. 1972, Counterfeit Miracles, London: Banner of Truth (first ed. 1918).

Warrington, K. 2000, Jesus the Healer: Paradigm or Unique Phenomenon? Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1-29.

Wenham, D. 1986, “Miracles Then and Now”, Themelios 12/1, 1-4.

Williams, D. 1993, “Following Christ’s example: a biblical view of discipleship”, in  G.S. Greig & K. N. Springer (eds.), The Kingdom and the Power: are healing and the spiritual gifts used by Jesus and the Early Church meant for the church today?, Ventura: Regal, 175-196.

Wimber, J. & Springer, K. 1985, Power Evangelism: Signs and Wonders Today, London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Woodhouse, J. 1987, “Signs and Wonders and Evangelical Ministry” in R. Doyle (ed.) Signs & Wonders and Evangelicals, Homebush West: Lancer.

Bibliography

Adamson, J. B 1976, The Epistle of James, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 196-202.

Brown, C. 1985, That You May Believe: Miracles and Faith Then and Now, Grand Rapids/Exeter: Eerdmans/Paternoster, 151-175.

Johnson, B. 2005, The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind: Access to a Life of Miracles, Shippenburg: Destiny Image.

Lewis, C. S. 2002, Miracles, London: HarperCollins.

Marshall, C. D. 1992, “Ghostbusters – Then and Now”, Reaper, 74/5 (Oct-Nov, 1992),14-16.

Motyer, A. 1985, The Message of James, 2nd ed., Leicester: IVP, 186-214.


Endnotes

  1. The Jesus Seminar, for instance, discounts the majority of Jesus’ miracles recorded in the canonical gospels, including his resurrection, as fanciful interpolations by later editors.
  2. Wimber uses an helpful illustration here, borrowed from German theologian Oscar Cullman. The turning point in World War II was D-Day, when troops landed on the shore of Normandy, but peace was not declared until V-E Day, some 11 months later. We live, he says, in the time between Christ’s decisive victory on the Cross (D-Day), and his parousia (V-E Day) – and there are still battles to be fought. ibid., 33.
  3. This, in large part, appears to be the motivator behind Warfield’s animosity towards what he calls ‘ecclesiastical miracles’. He is implicitly fighting the Roman Catholic assertion that God vindicates the Roman church over against the protestant church through provision of miracles.
  4. He argues this based on James’ choice of sōzō (I save) rather than therpeuō or iaomai (I heal) in verse 15.
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God is Green

by on Oct.08, 2007, under Sermon, Theology

God’s delight

In the 18th and 19th Centuries it was quite fashionable to view God as being a watchmaker who, having brought about a magnificent creation, wound it up and left it to work according to its own principles.1 That is, he invented the world, he put in place the laws of physics, chemistry, biology and everything else that makes it ‘tick’… and then he left it to its own devices.

But this is a long way from the God that the Bible presents to us. Jesus tells us that he knows when each sparrow falls,2 that no raven goes unfed nor lily unclothed.3 Is this a description of a God who is disconnected and uninvolved? Does this sound like a God who does not care about the fate of his creation?

Check out God’s words to Job:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said:

“Who is this that darkens my counsel
with words without knowledge?

Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.

Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?

On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone-

while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?

“Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,

when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,

when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,

when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’?

“Have you ever given orders to the morning,
or shown the dawn its place,

that it might take the earth by the edges
and shake the wicked out of it?4

And again:

“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn?
Do you count the months till they bear?
Do you know the time they give birth?

They crouch down and bring forth their young;
their labor pains are ended.

Their young thrive and grow strong in the wilds;
they leave and do not return.

“Who let the wild donkey go free?
Who untied his ropes?

I gave him the wasteland as his home,
the salt flats as his habitat.

He laughs at the commotion in the town;
he does not hear a driver’s shout.

He ranges the hills for his pasture
and searches for any green thing.5

God’s solution to Job’s problems is not a stinging rebuke for his lack of faith; nor is it a reasoned argument about why he needs to suffer. God calls on Job to look up and to look around at the world that God has created, a world which itself points back to God; the Creation that reminds us of the Creator. The Apostle Paul puts it like this: “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”6

God delights in his world, great and small. We are invited to enjoy the creation and to delight in it as God does. Again and again, God invites Job to consider, to wonder, to rejoice and to reflect on the splendour of what he has created.

The trouble is that we have become consumers rather than lovers; our delight has turned to greed, our service to exploitation.

Created to protect and serve

Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”7

Adam and Eve were created to “work [the Garden] and take care of it” – to protect and to serve. In return, they were given the run of the place, and God provided “trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.”

The Garden centred around the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, not the man and his wife, perhaps to remind Adam and Eve that the garden was not theirs: God’s plan was one of interdependence, of relationship; that is what makes what follows even more tragic.

First Eve and then Adam reach out and take from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the only tree which God had put off-limits, and in doing so sought to place themselves at the centre of the garden.

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.8

This is the first recorded example of humankind exploiting the environment for their own benefit, rather than working to enjoy it and protect it; sadly it is but the first of many.

The consequences were catastrophic, not only for Adam and Eve, not just for the human race, but for the whole of creation:

To Adam [God] said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’

Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.

It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”9

God’s creation has been corrupted. Not for nothing does the Apostle Paul write, “[w]e know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”10 However, just a paragraph earlier, he writes, “[t]he creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”11 Christians look forward to the day when God’s new creation dawns, when he will make all things new.12

Some Christians take this to extremes, though, claiming that the degradation of this world is OK, because it means that that day of new creation will come all the quicker. This is (literally) rubbish! If God grieves over each sparrow that falls and each lily that dies, can you imagine how offended he is by our wilful and persistent destruction of the world that he has entrusted to our care?

No, Christians should be leading the charge towards protecting and serving our environment.

This is easy to say; but how can we do this? Where do we start?

Tending the Garden

There are many things that can be said here, but let me highlight a few of the common ones that we can all do in order to preserve this world that God has entrusted to our care.

Broadly speaking, Jack Johnson has the right idea when he says “we gotta learn to reduce, reuse, recycle” – in that order. Recycling is good… but reusing is better. Reusing is good… but reduction is better!

Appliances

  • Refrigerator: The single household appliance that uses the most energy is the refrigerator. So let me ask, do you really need that second fridge? If you only use the second one when you’re having a party, why not consider turning it off and unplugging it the rest of the time? Do you need one that big?
  • Lights: The next biggest energy consumer is electric lighting. Some simple ways of reducing the amount of energy you use:
    • Use compact fluorescents – traditional incandescent bulbs waste about 90% of their energy as heat.
    • Turn off the lights when you’re out of the room for more than 60 seconds.
  • Televisions: The third biggest power user is the television. Even when they’re not on, most televisions are still drawing power in order to be able to turn on in response to a remote. Consider turning them off at the wall. Other ways to save power here are to watch less (!) and to not fall asleep with them on!!
  • Audio equipment: The U.S. Government has published statistics that show that Americans spend more money to power audio equipment when they’re off than when on! Again, consider turning off at the wall.
  • Computers: Turn off when not in use. Laptops use about half the power of desktops.
  • Microwaves: Whilst microwaves draw a large current, they do so only for a short time. Don’t be shy about using them to precook food – in that way you can cut down on using larger (less efficient) appliances like ovens.

Transport

If you drive a car, make sure the tyres are inflated correctly. Having under-inflated tyres will reduce your fuel efficiency by up to 10% !

On the subject of fuels, ethanol based-fuels are better for the environment (less emissions), but have impacts in other areas. This is because much ethanol used for fuel is derived from corn, a staple food around the world, and so an increase in demand for corn can have a devastating effect on the global poor, so think carefully.

The new seatbelt

Many years ago seatbelts in cars were unheard of; then they were an optional extra; required by law; and, finally, so common-place that to not wear one makes us feel as though something is wrong.

We need to promote the same kind of mentality regarding the environment. This will involve a transformational change… and there is only one who has ever been good at transformational change – God. Ultimately we need to realise that any solution that relies entirely upon our own efforts is doomed to fail. Our natural sinfulness will lead us to take short-cuts, to seek our own advantage, to leave it for someone else to deal with. If we want to see our world changed for the better, if we want to see God’s creation restored to the point where God once again declares it ‘Very Good,’ then we must first seek transformation of ourselves. We must once again become God’s caretakers, his gardeners, people who delight in and protect the world God has entrusted to our care rather than consuming and exploiting it; and this kind of transformation can come only through the saving work of Jesus. Jesus’ sacrifice, his blood, his death on the Cross on our behalf, is the only means by which we can be recreated – reborn – as the people God wants us to be.


Endnotes

  1. See, for example, William Paley’s Natural Theology.
  2. Matt 10:29
  3. Luke 12:24,27
  4. Job 38:1-13
  5. Job 39:1-8
  6. Rom 1:20
  7. Gen 2:8-17
  8. Gen 3:6
  9. Gen 3:17-19, emphasis added.
  10. Rom 8:22
  11. Rom 8:19-21
  12. Rev 21:5
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Why I am an Anglican

by on Sep.27, 2007, under History, Theology, Training Course

This was a training course I ran in September 2007 for i.d, the young adults’ ministry of St John’s, Sutherland.

I presented a series of sermons along the same lines in July 2010:

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Why I am an evangelical Christian

by on Sep.24, 2007, under History, Theology, Training Course

Introduction

On Sunday the 3rd of February, 1788, Richard Johnson preached the very first Christian sermon on Australian soil. Johnson had been appointed as chaplain for NSW and travelled with the First Fleet. His appointment was in no small part due to the influence exerted by two remarkable and influential men, William Wilberforce and John Newton, who believed it very important that the chaplain for this important expedition should be a committed evangelical Christian.But why were Wilberforce and Newton so keen to have an evangelical presence in NSW? And why was Johnson willing to up and transplant himself from a comfortable life in England for the sake of enduring the privations of sailing to the other side of the world?

This week we will explore these questions and more.

However, the evangelical story does not begin with Johnson, nor even with Wilberforce or Newton. Unlike the protestant and reformed innovations, the evangelical movement cannot really be linked to one man in particular. There were so many great leaders: Jonathan Edwards in America; Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine in Scotland; Howel Harris in Wales; and George Whitefield, William Wilberforce and John Newton in England. However, if I were to select one person as being representative of the movement as a whole, it would be John Wesley.

John Wesley

Toward the end of January 1736, the good ship Simmonds, bound for Savannah, Georgia, sailed into a series of violent Atlantic storms. The wind roared; the ship cracked and quivered; the waves lashed the deck.

A young, slightly built Anglican minister on board was frozen in fear. John Wesley had preached the gospel of eternal salvation to others, but he was afraid to die. He was deeply awed, however, by a company of Moravian Brethren from Herrnhut. As the sea broke over the deck of the vessel, splitting the mainsail in pieces, the Moravians calmly sang their psalms to God.

Afterward, Wesley asked one of the Germans if he was frightened.

“No,” he replied. “Weren’t your women and children afraid?” Wesley asked.

“No,” said the Moravian, “our women and children are not afraid to die.”

“This,” Wesley wrote in his Journal, “was the most glorious day I have ever seen.”

At that “glorious” moment Wesley was a most unlikely candidate for leadership in a spiritual awakening soon to shake England to its moorings. He had a form of godliness, but had yet to find its power.1

John Wesley was born in Epworth, England. He was the fifteenth of nineteen children. At the age of five, John was rescued from the burning rectory where he lived. This escape made a deep impression on his mind; and he regarded himself as providentially set apart, as a “brand plucked from the burning.”2 The Wesley children’s early education was given by their parents in the Epworth rectory. Each child, including the girls, was taught to read as soon as they could walk and talk. In 1713 John was admitted to the Charterhouse School, London, where he lived the studious, methodical, and (for a while) religious life in which he had been trained at home.

At seventeen he was off to Oxford University where he studied first at Christ Church and later at Lincoln College. He found little there to stimulate either mind or soul, but took the opportunity to read widely, including such books as Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living, Thomas à Kemipis’ Imitation of Christ and William Law’s Serious Call to a Holy Life. These men, he said, “convinced me of the absolute impossibility of being half a Christian. I determined, through His grace, to be all devoted to God.” So he listed his weaknesses and developed rules to overcome them.

In 1726 Wesley was elected a fellow of Lincoln College. This gave him not only academic standing at the University but assured him of a steady income. Two years later he was ordained to the Anglican ministry and returned to Epworth for a time to serve as his father’s assistant.

When he resumed his duties at Oxford, he found that his brother, Charles, alarmed at the spread of deism at the University, had assembled a little band of students determined to take their religion seriously. John proved to be just the leader they needed. Under his direction they drew up a plan of study and rule of life that stressed prayer, Bible reading, and frequent attendance at Holy Communion.

The little group soon attracted attention and some derision from the lax undergraduates. Holy Club, they called them; Bible moths, Methodists, and Reforming Club. The Methodist label is one that stuck.

The members of that little society were ardent but restless souls. They found fresh enthusiasm when a townsman or new student joined them, such as the bright and brash undergraduate from Pembroke College, George Whitefield. But they were constantly in search of ways to make their lives conform to the practice of early Christians. They gave to the poor and they visited the imprisoned. But John was quick to confess that he lacked the inward peace of a true Christian. God must have something more in mind.

Then came the invitation to Georgia. A friend, Dr. John Burton, suggested that both John and Charles could serve God in the new colony led by General James Oglethorpe. Charles could be the General’s secretary and John a chaplain to the colony. John welcomed a chance to preach to the Indians so the brothers boarded the Simmons in October with youthful idealism and missionary zeal, totally unaware of the storms on sea and soul just ahead.

The whole Georgia episode proved to be a fiasco. John discovered that the noble American savages were “gluttons, thieves, liars and murderers.” And his white congregation were not fond of his strict high church ways and his prohibition of fancy dresses and gold jewelry in church.

John’s frustrations were compounded by his pitiful love affair with Sophy Hopkey, the eighteen-year-old niece of Savannah’s chief magistrate. Wesley was so mixed up emotionally and spiritually that he didn’t know his own mind. Sophy finally resolved the affair by eloping with John’s rival. The jilted lover then barred her from Holy Communion, and her incensed husband sued John for defaming Sophy’s character. The trial dragged out and after six months of harassment, Wesley fled the colony in disgust.

On his way home, he had a chance to ponder the whole experience. “I went to America,” he wrote, “to convert the Indians, but, oh, who shall convert me?”

Wesley returned to England depressed and beaten. On the night of May 24, 1738, at a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, in which he heard a reading of Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans, and penned the now famous line “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” This completely changed the character and method of his ministry.

Though his understanding of both justification and assurance matured, he never stopped preaching the importance of faith for salvation and the witness of God’s Spirit with the spirit of the believer that they were, indeed, a child of God. His unorthodox teachings, however, meant that he was excluded from preaching in most parish churches.

Wesley’s Oxford friend, the evangelist George Whitefield, was also excluded from the churches of Bristol. In February of 1739, he went to the neighbouring village of Kingswood and preached in the open air to a company of miners. Wesley hesitated to accept Whitefield’s invitation to copy this bold step. Overcoming his reservations, he preached his first sermon in the open air, near Bristol, in April of that year.

He was still unhappy about the idea of field preaching, and would have thought, “till very lately,” such a method of saving souls as “almost a sin.” These open-air services were very successful, however, and he never again hesitated to preach in any place where an assembly could be gotten together. More than once he used his father’s tombstone at Epworth as a pulpit! He continued for fifty years — entering churches when he was invited, and taking his stand in the fields, in halls, cottages, and chapels, when the churches would not receive him.

Wesley travelled constantly, generally on horseback, preaching two or three times a day. In fact, by Wesley’s own estimate, he averaged 8000 miles of travel per year, most of it on horseback! He rose at four in the morning, lived simply and methodically, and was never idle if he could help it. He formed societies, opened chapels, examined and commissioned preachers, administered aid charities, prescribed for the sick and superintended schools and orphanages. He received at least £20,000 for his publications, but used little of it for himself. His charities were limited only by his means, and he died a poor man.

All of this activity had one cause: Wesley’s renewed understanding of the importance and preeminence of the Gospel.

The Gospel

The partnership between Wesley and Whitefield was a strange one. Although they had similar backgrounds, their theological viewpoints were wildly different. On the one hand, Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist, subscribing to all of the beliefs we learned about last week; on the other, Wesley was an Arminian, believing, for example, that man is capable of overcoming their own sinfulness enough to be able to turn to God – anathema to a Calvinist. They put aside these differences, however, in order to preach the Gospel.

This renewed Gospel focus led to one of the great missionary movements of all time. The Society for Missions to Africa and the East (later renamed the Church Mission Society) was formed in 1799 by a group of activist evangelicals. Other voluntary societies, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children were also established by evangelicals. Much of the social work that was done by these societies was accompanied by Christian witness and evangelism. In this, they followed Christ’s example – he who preached God’s kingdom come and then worked to see that fulfilled here on earth by caring for the sick, the poor and the outcast.

One of the big battles that evangelicals had to overcome was the perception in society that Christianity was only useful for the purpose of teaching morals (this idea is known as moralism). Most people were baptised as infants, and so considered themselves to be Christians by default. As a result, so it was thought, the Church needed only to preach morality. Wesley, perhaps largely because of his own experience, held to the importance of all people undergoing ‘conversion’ and being born-again.

Assurance of Salvation

Wesley believed that all Christians have a faith which implies an assurance of God’s forgiving love, and that one should feel that assurance, or the “witness of the Spirit”. This understanding is grounded in Paul’s affirmation, “…ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry Abba, Father. The same Spirit beareth witness with our spirits, that we are the children of God…” (Romans 8:15-16, Wesley’s translation). This experience was mirrored for Wesley in his Aldersgate experience wherein he “knew” he was loved by God and that his sins were forgiven.

I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken my sin, even mine.3

The Bible

Broadly speaking, there are 4 categories of belief about the source of authority for the church:

  • The Bible
  • Tradition
  • Personal Experience
  • Reason

Different groups have different emphases on each of these – for example, as we learned when looked at protestantism, the Catholic church emphasises the role of tradition, and the teachings of the church, to be equal with Scripture. Other churches see the personal experience of the Holy Spirit’s work in your life as being the determining force for that life; hence you are encouraged to always seek the Spirit’s leading before taking action.

John Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason. Scripture, Wesley argued, is primary, revealing the Word of God ‘so far as it is necessary for our salvation.’ For Wesley, Tradition, Reason, and Experience do not form additional “sources” for theological truth, for he believed that the Bible was the sole source of truth about God, but rather these form a matrix for interpreting the Bible. Therefore, while the Bible is the sole source of truth, Tradition forms a “lens” through which we view and interpret the Bible. But unlike the Bible, Tradition is not an infallible instrument, and it must be balanced and tested by Reason and Experience. Reason is the means by which we may evaluate and even challenge the assumptions of Tradition.

But for Wesley, the chief test of the “truth and nothing but the whole truth” of a particular interpretation of scripture is how it is seen in practical application in one’s Experience. Always the pragmatist, Wesley believed that Experience formed the best evidence, after Scripture, for the truthfulness of a particular theological view. He believed Scriptural truths are to be primarily lived, rather than simply thought about or merely believed. Thus, how a particular interpretation of scripture is lived out is the best and most viable test of our theology.

This primacy of Scripture is one of the central tenets of evangelical belief.

Conclusion

John Wesley was one of many leading the evangelical charge in the 18th Century, and many have followed in his footsteps since. His great contributions to Christianity were a renewed emphasis on Scriptural authority, and an appreciation for the need for conversion.

Richard Johnson faced a great struggle as the first chaplain of NSW. Governor Phillip demanded that Johnson should teach the convicts and soldiers good morals; Johnson wanted to preach the gospel… and so that is exactly what he did. And that is why Wilberforce and Newton fought so hard to have an evangelical aboard the First Fleet.

And that is why I am an evangelical Christian.


Endnotes

  1. Shelley, “A Brand from the Burning” in Church History in Plain Language (2nd Edition, Thomas Nelson, 1995) p. 331.
  2. cf. Zech 3:2.
  3. Wesley’s Journal
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Why I am a reformed Christian

by on Sep.16, 2007, under History, Theology, Training Course

Introduction

Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law?1

With these words, Queen Elizabeth II was entrusted with the responsibility for preserving the Church and the Gospel within the boundaries of her domain. But what do those words mean – “the Protestant Reformed Religion”?

We looked at what it means to be a protestant last week, and religion seems fairly straightforward, but what does it mean to be reformed?

No, it’s not like being a “reformed prisoner” or a “reformed alcoholic”.

Instead, the word ‘reformed’ in this context has to do with being an heir of the teachings of John Calvin.

John Calvin

When Gerard Calvin and his wife Jeanne became parents of a little boy in northern France in 1509, they could not have known that he was destined to become one of the truly great men of all time. They named him Jean. In French his name is Jean Calvin; in the Latinized form, Joannes Calvinus; but we know him as John Calvin.

John Calvin was born July 10, 1509 in Noyon in Picardy, 60 miles northeast of Paris. Upon reaching his teenage years, he began formal studies towards becoming a Roman Catholic priest. He studied theology at Paris from 1523 to 1528, and did quite well. But he became increasingly disillusioned with the corrupt Catholicism of the day, and decided to study law instead. So he transferred to Orleans and Bourges for studies towards becoming a lawyer (1528 to 1532).

But his heart was still restless, until at last it found its rest in God through true conversion in 1533. He left Roman Catholicism forever. But these were dangerous days for those who left Rome. Heavy persecution dogged the French Protestants, and Calvin himself was imprisoned for a short time from 1534 to 1535. So he decided to leave France.

His goal was to move to Basel, Switzerland, and take up a quiet and secluded life of study and writing. It was never to be. Passing through Geneva, he met the leader of, the Swiss French Reformation, Guillaume Farel, who was immediately so impressed with young Calvin that he cautioned him with God’s punishment if he did not stay in Geneva to preach and teach. Calvin stayed.

In 1536 Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. It was immediately hailed throughout Europe as the finest systematic theology by a Protestant Reformer. It was to be his literary masterpiece and he later edited and expanded it several times through his lifetime.

Calvin and Farel immediately began the reformation of the church in Geneva. They proposed a confession and oath for the city and its citizenry. All citizens were required to take the oath of faith or leave Geneva. Virtually all Genevans accepted. But when in 1538 Calvin called for the church to have authority to fence the Lord’s Table by excommunicating all those living in public sin, both he and Farel were exiled by the City Council.

So Calvin went to Strassbourg in southern Germany near France. There he pastored the French-speaking congregation and lectured in the theological academy. He became a close friend of Martin Bucer, who would have a profound influence on Calvin’s theology. Calvin would stay in Strassbourg for 3 years until the Geneva City Council changed its mind and agreed that Calvin and Farel were right after all. Yet it would be nearly 20 years until the church formally had the right to excommunicate citizens living in known sin.

It was in Strassbourg that Calvin met his wife. Actually, Bucer and Farel had twice tried to match Calvin with a prospective wife, unsuccessfully. A certain Anabaptist had converted to Reformed thinking under Calvin’s theology, but he soon caught and died of the Plague. Some time later, his widow would become Mrs. John Calvin. Her name was Idelette de Bure. She brought 2 children with her, a teenage boy and a young girl. John and Idelette had only one child themselves, but he died shortly afterwards. Idelette herself was constantly in ill health, and she died in 1549 after only 9 years of marriage. Calvin never remarried. And he too was in continual ill health.

From 1541 Calvin spent almost all of his life in Geneva. In addition to his preaching and teaching duties he organized a school system for the children of Geneva, a system of charity for the poor and elderly; Calvin even designed the public sewer system of Geneva when the City Council couldn’t agree on a plan.

One of his main goals was a truly godly society. He viewed the Church and State on equal levels – separate in some areas, related in others. Before Calvin, Geneva was notorious throughout Europe for its profligacy; after Calvin, it became one of the godliest cities the world has ever known. Calvin’s theology of the godly society gave rise to the modern ideas of the democratic republic, the Free Enterprise economic system popularly called Capitalism, and the Protestant Work Ethic. They were put into practice in Geneva. The plan worked.

In 1555, Geneva became the refuge of Protestant refugees from all around Europe, particularly Great Britain. These English and Scottish leaders sat under Calvin’s teaching and brought that theology back with them when they returned to solidify the English and Scottish Reformations. Another major milestone in Calvin’s life was the establishment of the Academy of Geneva in 1559, which later became the University of Geneva. But for all this, his main calling was to be a pastor and a theologian.

The ‘Five Points’ of Calvinism

Whilst he never formulated them in these words, John Calvin’s most famous teachings are traditionally remembered using the mnemonic TULIP: Total Depravity; Unconditional Election; Limited Atonement; Irresistible Grace; and Perseverance of the Saints.

Total Depravity

Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.2

Total depravity is the fallen state of man as a result of original sin. The doctrine of total depravity teaches that people are by nature not inclined to love God with their whole heart, mind, or strength, as he requires, but rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbor and to reject the rule of God. Even religion and philanthropy are destructive to the extent that these originate from a human imagination, passions, and will.

Therefore, in Reformed Theology, God must predestine individuals for salvation since man is incapable of choosing God.

Total depravity does not mean, however, that people are as evil as possible. As Wayne Grudem points out:

Scripture is not denying that unbelievers can do good in human society in some senses. But it is denying that they can do any spiritual good or be good in terms of a relationship with God. Apart from the work of Christ in our lives, we are like all other unbelievers who are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph. 4:18).3

This may seem like a harsh call, but Calvin nevertheless taught optimism concerning God’s love for what he has made and God’s ability to accomplish the ultimate good that he intends for his creation. In particular, in the process of salvation, it is argued that God overcomes man’s inability with his divine grace and enables men and women to choose to follow him. After all, “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”4 And this brings us to the idea of election.

For further reading, see:

  • Genesis 6:5: “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.”
  • Psalms 51:5: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
  • Jeremiah 13:23: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.”
  • Mark 7:21-23: “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evil things come from inside and make a man ‘unclean’.”
  • John 3:19: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved the darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”
  • John 6:64-65: “[Jesus said,] ‘Yet there are some of you who do not believe.’ (For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe, and who would betray him.) He went on to say, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.'”
  • John 8:34: “Jesus replied, ‘I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.'”
  • Romans 3:10-11: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one understands, no one who seeks God.”
  • Romans 8:6-8: “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.”
  • 1 Corinthians 2:14: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
  • Ephesians 2:1-3: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.”

Unconditional Election

As Scripture, then, clearly shows, we say that God once established by his eternal and unchangeable plan those whom he long before determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote to destruction.5

In Protestant theology, election is considered to be one aspect of predestination in which God selects certain individuals to be saved. Those elected receive mercy, while those not elected, the reprobate, receive justice.

In Calvinism, this election is called “unconditional” because his choice to save someone does not hinge on anything inherent in the person or on any act that the person performs or belief that the person exercises. Indeed the influence of sin has so inhibited our ability to act righteously that no one is willing or able to come to or follow God apart from God first regenerating the person’s heart to give them the ability to love him. Hence, God’s choice in election is and can only be based solely on God’s own independent and sovereign will and not upon the foreseen actions of man.

The Reformed position is frequently contrasted with the Arminian doctrine of conditional election in which God’s eternal choice to save a person is conditioned on God’s certain foreknowledge of future events, namely, that certain individuals would exercise faith and trust in response to God’s offer of salvation.

For more:

  • John 15:16: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.”
  • Romans 9:15-16: “For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”
  • Ephesians 1:4-5: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”
  • 2 Timothy 1:9: “[God] has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.”

Limited Atonement

The doctrine of the limited scope (or extent) of the atonement is intimately tied up with the doctrine of the nature of the atonement. It also has much to do with the general Calvinist scheme of predestination. Calvinists advocate the satisfaction theory (also known as punishment theory) of the atonement, which developed in the writings of Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas. In brief, the Calvinistic refinement of this theory states that the atonement of Christ literally pays the penalty incurred by the sins of men — that is, Christ receives the wrath of God for specific sins and thereby cancels the judgment they had incurred. Since, Calvinists argue, it would be unjust for God to pay the penalty for men’s sins and then still condemn them for those sins, all those whose sins were propitiated must necessarily be saved.

The Calvinist view of predestination teaches that God chose a group of people, who would not and could not choose him, to be saved apart from their works or their cooperation, and those people are compelled by God’s irresistible grace to accept the offer of the salvation achieved in the atonement of Christ. Since in this scheme God knows precisely who the elect are, Christ needn’t atone for sins other than those of the elect.

The Calvinist atonement is thus called definite because it certainly secures the salvation of those for whom Christ died, and it is called limited in its extent because it effects salvation for the elect only. Calvinists do not believe the power of the atonement is limited in any way, which is to say that no sin is too great to be expiated by Christ’s sacrifice, in their view.

On a practical level, this doctrine is not emphasized in Calvinist churches except in comparison to other salvific schemes, and when it is taught, the primary use of this and the other doctrines of predestination is the assurance of believers. To that end, they apply this doctrine especially to try to strengthen the belief that “Christ died for me,” as in the words of St. Paul, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me6. In fact, contrary to what one might expect on the basis of this doctrine, Calvinists believe they can freely and sincerely offer salvation to everyone on God’s behalf since they themselves do not know which people are counted among the elect and since they see themselves as God’s instruments in bringing about the salvation of other members of the elect.

The classic Bible passage cited to prove a limited extent to the atonement is the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John in which Jesus uses Ancient Near Eastern shepherding practices as a metaphor for his relationship to his followers. A shepherd of those times would call his sheep from a mix of flocks, and his sheep would hearken to his voice and follow, while the sheep of other flocks would ignore any but their own shepherd’s voice (John 10:1-5). In that context, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me,…and I lay down my life for the sheep” (vv. 14-15), and he tells the Pharisees that they “do not believe because [they] are not [his] sheep” (v. 26). He continues, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (vv. 27-28). Since Calvinists and nearly all Christians believe that not all have eternal life with God, Calvinists conclude that either Jesus was wrong in saying that he would lose none of his sheep (a conclusion they reject) or that Jesus must not have died for everyone.

Irresistible Grace

According to Calvinism, those who obtain salvation do so, not by their own “free” will, but because of the sovereign discriminating grace of God. That is, men yield to grace, not finally because their consciences were more tender or their faith more tenacious than that of other men. Rather, the willingness and ability to do God’s will, are evidence of God’s own faithfulness to save men from the power and the penalty of sin, and since man is so corrupt that he will not decide and cannot be wooed to follow after God, God must powerfully intervene. In short, Calvinism argues that regeneration must precede faith.

Calvin says of this intervention that “it is not violent, so as to compel men by external force; but still it is a powerful impulse of the Holy Spirit, which makes men willing who formerly were unwilling and reluctant,”7 and John Gill says that “this act of drawing is an act of power, yet not of force.

See, for example:

  • John 6:37,39: “All that the Father gives me will come to me…. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up on the last day.”
  • John 6:44–45: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…. Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me.”
  • John 6:65: “[N]o one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”

Perseverance of the Saints

The perseverance of the saints means that all those who are truly born again will be kept by God’s power and will persevere as Christians until the end of their lives, and that only those who persevere until the end have been truly born again.

The Reformed tradition has consistently seen the doctrine of perseverance as a natural consequence to its general scheme of predestination in which God has chosen some men and women for salvation and has cleared them of their guilty status by atoning for their sins through Jesus’ sacrifice. According to these Calvinists, God has irresistibly drawn the elect to put their faith in himself for salvation by regenerating their hearts and convincing them of their need. Therefore, they continue, since God has made satisfaction for the sins of the elect, they can no longer be condemned for them, and through the help of the Holy Spirit, they must necessarily persevere as Christians and in the end be saved.

Traditional Calvinists also believe that all who are born again and justified before God necessarily and inexorably proceed to sanctification. Indeed, failure to proceed to sanctification in their view is evidence that the person in question was not one of the elect to begin with. The suggestion is that after God has regenerated someone, the person’s will cannot reverse its course. It is argued that God has changed that person in ways that are outside of his or her own ability to alter fundamentally, and he or she will therefore persevere in the faith.

On a practical level, Calvinists do not claim to know who is elect and who is not, and the only guide they have are the verbal testimony and good works (or “fruit”) of each individual. Any who “fall away” (that is, do not persevere unto death) must not have been truly converted to begin with, though Calvinists don’t claim to know with certainty who did and who did not persevere.

  • John 6:37-40: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
  • John 10:28-29: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”
  • Romans 5:9-10: “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”
  • Romans 8:31-39: “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
    “For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
    No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
  • Romans 11:29: “[F]or God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.”
  • 1 Corinthians 1:4-9: “I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge – because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.”
  • Ephesians 1:13-14:”And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.”
  • Philippians 1:6: “[B]eing confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
  • 1 Peter 1:5: “[The elect] are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.”
  • Jude 24: “[God] is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy.”

The Lord’s Supper

The Roman Catholic Church of Calvin’s day (and indeed to this day) had 7 ‘sacraments’ – that is, rites, first implemented by Jesus, which are sacred. They were: baptism; confirmation; the eucharist (what we would call communion or the Lord’s Supper); confession; ordination; anointing of the sick (for those who are terminally ill, you may have heard this referred to as ‘last rites’); and marriage.

Martin Luther, John Calvin and other reformers argued that there was only biblical evidence for 2 of these – baptism and the Lord’s Supper. However, they were by no means in total agreement about what these actually meant. Luther and Calvin, for example, disagreed about what happens when we take communion: Luther believed that, whilst not actually being Christ’s body and blood (as Catholics believe), the bread and the wine by which we celebrate the Lord’s Supper somehow mystically link us to his body and blood, allowing us to participate in his death and thus in his life; Calvin, on the other hand, argued that the bread and the wine were rather a symbol, giving a visible sign of the fact that Christ himself was truly present. This latter view is the one that is held in the Anglican Church:

The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.8

Conclusion

Few men other than the Lord Jesus himself have had a more significant impact on Christian thinking than John Calvin. His influence can be felt every time we take communion. His understanding of God’s Sovereignty was a precious gift to a church infatuated with its own sense of control; it reminds us that the world exists around God, not God around the world. Some of his teachings are hard to understand or accept – yet they ring true with Scripture over and over again.

And that is why I am a reformed Christian.


Endnotes

  1. Archbishop of Canterbury to Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation, 1953
  2. Westminster Confession of Faith
  3. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (IVP, 1994) p. 497.
  4. Matthew 19:26
  5. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion III.xxi.7.
  6. Gal. 2:20, emphasis added
  7. Calvin, Commentary on John’s Gospel 6:44.
  8. Article 28 of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion.
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Why I am a protestant Christian

by on Sep.10, 2007, under History, Theology, Training Course

Introduction

Next year, 2008, the Roman Catholic church will celebrate World Youth Day here in Australia. As a part of this, we can expect to see a massive influx of young people from around the world1, drawn towards Sydney in particular; the event will climax in an open-air Mass at Randwick Racecourse, conducted by Pope Benedict XVI. On the whole, we can expect the event to be full of life and energy, and no doubt a great witness to Christ… and yet many Christians will feel unable to attend.

It is a fact that no Anglican Archbishop of Sydney has ever attended mass. At the installation of Cardinal Pell as a cardinal, the service was planned with a deliberate pause midway through to allow Archbishop Peter Jensen to withdraw before the commencement of the mass part of the service.

The question must be asked, of course, what kind of issue or issues could be worth splitting the Church over? How can we justify one Christian parting ways with another? Didn’t Christ command unity? Wasn’t Paul’s vision for one Body, rather than many smaller bodies?

In this course it is my aim to explore some of the issues that have split the Church over the years, and tonight we start with the issue of the Roman Catholic/Protestant divide.

History

Martin Luther

In the summer of 1520 a document bearing an impressive seal circulated throughout Germany in search of a remote figure. “Arise, O Lord,” the writing began, “and judge Thy cause. A wild boar has invaded Thy vineyard.”

The document, a papal bull – named after the seal, or bulla – took three months to reach Martin Luther, the wild boar. Long before it arrived in Wittenberg where Luther was teaching, he knew its contents. Forty-one of his beliefs were condemned as “heretical, or scandalous, or false, or offensive to pious ears, or seductive of simple minds, or repugnant to Catholic truth.” The bull called on Luther to repent and repudiate his errors or face the dreadful consequences.

Luther received his copy on the tenth of October. At the ened of his sixty-day period of grace, he led a throng of eager students outside Wittenberg and burned copies of the Canon Law and the works of some medieval theologians. Perhaps as an afterthought Luther added a copy of the bull condemning him. That was his answer. “They have burned my books,” he said, “I burn theirs.” Those flames in early December, 1520, were a fit symbol of the defiance of the pope raging throughout Germany.2

Martin Luther (November 10, 1483 – February 18, 1546) was a German monk, theologian, and church reformer. He is generally considered to be the founder of Protestantism.

Luther’s theology challenged the authority of the papacy by emphasizing the Bible as the sole source of religious authority and all baptised Christians as a general priesthood. According to Luther, salvation was attainable only by faith in Jesus as the messiah, a faith unmediated by the church. These ideas helped to inspire the Protestant Reformation and changed the course of Western civilization.

Luther’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular, making it more accessible to ordinary people, had a tremendous political impact on the church and on German culture. The translation also furthered the development of a standard version of the German language, added several principles to the art of translation, and influenced the translation of the English King James Bible. His hymns inspired the development of congregational singing within Christianity. His marriage to Katharina von Bora set a model for the practice of clerical marriage within Protestantism.

Early life

Luther was born to Hans Luder (or Ludher, later Luther) and his wife Margarethe (née Lindemann) on November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. He was baptised the next morning on the feast day of St. Martin of Tours. His family moved to Mansfeld in 1484, where his father was a leaseholder of copper mines and smelters, and served as one of four citizen representatives on the local council. Martin Marty describes Luther’s mother as a hard-working woman of “trading-class stock and middling means,” and notes that Luther’s enemies would later wrongly describe her as a whore and bath attendant. He had several brothers and sisters, and is known to have been close to one of them, Jacob.

Hans Luther was ambitious for himself and his family, and was determined to see his eldest son become a lawyer. He sent Martin to Latin schools in Mansfeld, then Magdeburg in 1497, where he attended a school operated by a lay group called the Brethren of the Common Life, and Eisenach in 1498. The three schools focused on the so-called “trivium”: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Luther later compared his education there to purgatory and hell.

At the age of seventeen in 1501, he entered the University of Erfurt — later describing it as a beerhouse and whorehouse — which saw him woken at four every morning for what Marty describes as “a day of rote learning and often wearying spiritual exercises.” He received his master’s degree in 1505.

In accordance with his father’s wishes, he enrolled in law school at the same university that year, but dropped out almost immediately, believing that law represented uncertainty. Marty writes that Luther sought assurances about life, and was drawn to theology and philosophy, expressing particular interest in Aristotle, William of Ockham, and Gabriel Biel. He was deeply influenced by two tutors, Bartholomäus Arnoldi von Usingen and Jodocus Trutfetter, who taught him to be suspicious of even the greatest thinkers, and to test everything himself by experience. Philosophy proved to be unsatisfying, offering assurance about the use of reason, but none about the importance, for Luther, of loving God. Reason could not lead men to God, he felt, and he developed what Marty describes as a love-hate relationship with Aristotle over the latter’s emphasis on reason. For Luther, reason could be used to question men and institutions, but not God. Human beings could learn about God only through divine revelation, he believed, and Scripture therefore became increasingly important to him.

He decided to leave his studies and become a monk, later attributing his decision to an experience during a thunderstorm on July 2, 1505. A lightning bolt struck near him as he was returning to university after a trip home. Later telling his father he was terrified of death and divine judgment, he cried out, “Help! Saint Anna, I will become a monk!” He came to view his cry for help as a vow he could never break.

He left law school, sold his books, and entered a closed Augustinian monastery in Erfurt on July 17, 1505. One friend blamed the decision on Luther’s sadness over the deaths of two friends. Luther himself seemed saddened by the move, telling those who attended a farewell supper then walked him to the door of the Black Cloister, “This day you see me, and then, not ever again.” His father was furious over what he saw as a waste of Luther’s education.

Luther dedicated himself to monastic life, devoting himself to fasts, long hours in prayer, pilgrimage, and frequent confession. Luther tried to please God through this dedication, but it only increased his awareness of his own sinfulness. He would later remark, “If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would indeed have been among them.” Luther described this period of his life as one of deep spiritual despair. He said, “I lost hold of Christ the Savior and Comforter and made of him a stock-master and hangman over my poor soul.”

Johann von Staupitz, his superior, concluded that Luther needed more work to distract him from excessive introspection and ordered him to pursue an academic career. In 1507, he was ordained to the priesthood, and in 1508 began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Biblical studies on March 9, 1508, and another Bachelor’s degree in the Sentences by Peter Lombard in 1509. On October 19, 1512, he was awarded his Doctor of Theology and, on October 21, 1512, was received into the senate of the theological faculty of the University of Wittenberg, having been called to the position of Doctor in Bible. He spent the rest of his career in this position at the University of Wittenberg.

Indulgences

In 1516-17, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar and papal commissioner for indulgences, was sent to Germany by the Roman Catholic Church to sell indulgences to raise money to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In Roman Catholic theology, an “indulgence” is the remission of punishment because a sin already committed has been forgiven; the indulgence is granted by the church when the sinner confesses and receives absolution. When an indulgence is given, the church is extending merit to a sinner from its Treasure House of Merit, an accumulation of merits it has collected based on the good deeds of the saints. These merits could be bought and sold.

On October 31, 1517, Luther wrote to Albert, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, protesting the sale of indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” which came to be known as The 95 Theses. Hans Hillerbrand writes that Luther had no intention of confronting the church, but saw his disputation as a scholarly objection to church practices, and the tone of the writing is accordingly “searching, rather than doctrinaire.” Hillerbrand writes that there is nevertheless an undercurrent of challenge in several of the theses, particularly in Thesis 86, which asks: “Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”

Luther objected to a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel that “[a]s soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,” insisting that, since forgiveness was God’s alone to grant, those who claimed that indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error. Christians, he said, must not slacken in following Christ on account of such false assurances.

According to Philip Melanchthon, writing in 1546, Luther nailed a copy of the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg that same day — church doors acting as the bulletin boards of his time — an event now seen as sparking the Protestant Reformation, and celebrated every October 31 as Reformation Day.

The 95 Theses were quickly translated from Latin into German, printed, and widely copied, making the controversy one of the first in history to be fanned by the printing press. Within two weeks, the theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout Europe.

On June 15, 1520, the Pope warned Luther with the papal bull (the one about the boar in the vineyard, already mentioned) that he risked excommunication unless he recanted 41 sentences drawn from his writings, including the 95 Theses, within 60 days.

That fall, Johann Eck proclaimed the bull in Meissen and other towns. Karl von Miltitz, a papal nuncio, attempted to broker a solution, but Luther, who had sent the Pope a copy of On the Freedom of a Christian in October, publicly set fire to the bull and decretals at Wittenberg on December 10, 1520, an act he defended in Why the Pope and his Recent Book are Burned and Assertions Concerning All Articles.

As a consequence, Luther was excommunicated by Leo X on January 3, 1521, in the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem.

Reformation Teachings

Whilst Luther’s objection to the sale of indulgences was the initial spark that set the flame of the Reformation, it was not the most significant of his teachings. This distinction, in my view, belongs instead to what are referred to as the five solas.

Five Solas

The five solas are five Latin phrases (or slogans) that emerged during the Protestant Reformation and summarise the Reformers’ basic theological beliefs as compared to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church of the day. The Latin word sola means “alone” in English. The five solas were what the Reformers believed to be the only things needed for Christian salvation. They were intended to highlight the absolute (and only) essentials of Christian life and practice.

The five solas are:

  • Sola gratia (“by grace alone”)
  • Sola fide (“by faith alone”)
  • Sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”)
  • Solus Christus (“In Christ alone”)
  • Soli Deo gloria (“Glory to God alone”)

Sola gratia (“by grace alone”)

Salvation comes by God’s grace or “unmerited favor” only — not as something merited by the sinner. This means that salvation is an unearned gift from God for Jesus’ sake.

During the Reformation, Protestant leaders and theologians generally believed the Roman Catholic view of the means of salvation to be a mixture of reliance upon the grace of God, and confidence in the merits of one’s own works performed in love. The Reformers argued instead that salvation is entirely found in God’s gifts (that is, God’s act of free grace), dispensed by the Holy Spirit according to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ alone. Consequently, they argued that a sinner is not accepted by God on account of the change wrought in the believer by God’s grace, and indeed, that the believer is accepted without any regard for the merit of his works—for no one deserves salvation. The responsibility for salvation does not rest on the sinner to any degree.

Sola fide (“by faith alone”)

Justification (interpreted in Protestant theology as, “being declared guiltless by God”) is received by faith only, not good works, though in classical Protestant theology, saving faith is automatically accompanied by good works. Some Protestants see this doctrine as being summarized with the formula “Faith yields justification and good works” and as contrasted with the Roman Catholic formula “Faith and good works yield justification.” However, this is disputed by the Roman Catholic position as a misrepresentation; it might be better contrasted with a comparison of what is meant by the term “justification”: both sides agree that the term invokes a communication of Christ’s merits to sinners, where in Protestant theology this is seen as being a declaration of sinlessness, Roman Catholicism sees justification as a communication of God’s life to a human being, cleansing him of sin and transforming him truly into a son of God, so that it is not merely a declaration. This doctrine is sometimes called the material cause or principle of the Reformation because it was the central doctrinal issue for Martin Luther and the other reformers. Luther called it the “doctrine by which the church stands or falls”. This doctrine asserts the total exclusion of any other righteousness to justify the sinner other than the “alien” righteousness (righteousness of another) of Christ alone.

Sola fide is different from Sola gratia because faith alone is considered either a work or is insufficient for salvation which can only be granted freely by God to whom He chooses. This doctrine is especially linked with Calvinism’s unconditional election and predestination, which we will explore more next week.

Sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”)

The Roman Catholic church teaches, to this day, that the Bible can only be authoritatively interpreted by those members of the church in direct apostolic succession (called the Magisterium), ultimately embodied in the Pope himself. They take this one step further, holding that the teachings and interpretations of the Magisterium are themselves authoritative and infallible, and a Christian must obey them as the very Word of God.

Luther and the Reformers, however, took issue with this. Instead, they taught that the Bible is the only inspired and authoritative Word of God, is the only source for Christian doctrine, and is accessible to all believers. They held that to add to the Gospel is actually to subtract from it.

Solus Christus (“In Christ alone”)

Some of you will be aware of Pope Benedict’s recent comments to the effect that any church that is not Roman Catholic is not truly God’s church. Because other churches, in his view, are not based upon apostolic succession – that is, they cannot trace a line of successive bishops all the way back to the apostles – their priesthood is invalid, and thus they cannot truly be a part of the Church. This includes the Anglican church, of which we are a part.

According to the Reformers, however, Christ is the only mediator between God and man, and there is salvation through no other. This principle rejects sacerdotalism, which is the belief that there are no sacraments in the church without the services of priests ordained by apostolic succession under the authority of the pope. Martin Luther taught the “general priesthood of the baptized,” which was modified in later Lutheranism and classical Protestant theology into “the priesthood of all believers,” denying the exclusive use of the title “priest” (Latin, sacerdos) to the clergy.

Soli Deo gloria (“Glory to God alone”)

All glory is due to God alone, since salvation is accomplished solely through his will and action—not only the gift of the all-sufficient atonement of Jesus on the cross but also the gift of faith in that atonement, created in the heart of the believer by the Holy Spirit. The reformers believed that human beings—even saints canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, the popes, and the church hierarchy—are not worthy of the glory that was accorded them.

Summary

These teachings can be summarised as follows:

Category Roman Catholic Church The Reformers
Salvation is offered… by grace to those who do good works. by Grace alone.
Justification is received… by faith and good works. by faith alone, but leads to good works.
Authority is found… in the Scriptures and the (Roman Catholic) Church. in Scripture alone.
Access to God is obtained… through Christ and his appointed Church. through Christ alone.
Glory is due… to God, Mary and the saints. to God alone.


Endnotes

  1. The official World Youth Day website estimates that “500,000 participants are expected to attend at least one event during the World Youth Day week.”
  2. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (2nd Edition, Thomas Nelson, 1995).
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