Category Archives: Justification

The Eve of the Reformation: Staupitz

As noted several times already on this blog, this year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  Today I want to look at a figure from the period right before the Reformation:  Johann von Staupitz.  I first became interested in Staupitz because of his portrayal in the 2003 movie, Luther.  Bruno Ganz warmly played the part of Staupitz and gave the impression that he was influential in Luther’s life, but also flawed in some ways.  As it turns out, this is not far off the mark.

Johann von Staupitz (1460/69-1524) was Martin Luther’s spiritual father, his mentor.  Without a doubt, Staupitz left his mark on Luther.  While Staupitz himself never broke with the papal Catholic church, he surely did have a hand in the Reformation ignited by his spiritual son Martin Luther.

The Life of Staupitz

There is some uncertainty about his exact birth date — it was sometime between 1460 and 1469.  His family were German nobility and so study was within his reach.  He obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1485 and then went on to a master’s degree right afterwards.  By 1500, he had obtained a doctorate from the university of Tubingen.  At some point in his university years, he took vows and became a member of the Order of the Hermits of Saint Augustine.  This was a highly educated Catholic order which emphasized many of the key teachings of Augustine.

Staupitz quickly distinguished himself as an Augustinian monk.  While serving as a prior in Tubingen, he preached 34 sermons on the book of Job.  While they were appreciated by those who heard (and have thus been preserved), Staupitz himself felt that “he had afflicted Job with a worse plague than boils.”  Despite his humble self-assessment, Staupitz was becoming recognized as a careful expositor of the Bible.

In 1502, he was appointed to be the first professor of biblical studies and the dean of the faculty of theology at the University of Wittenberg.  However, because of his growing responsibilities amongst the Augustinians, he spent limited time in Wittenberg and only lectured occasionally.  Much of his time was taken up with travelling and preaching in other places.  For example, in 1516, he was in Nuremburg where he preached a series of Advent sermons.  These became a little book on predestination, first published in Latin, and then later translated into German.

Staupitz and Luther knew each other already in 1511.  Luther was drawn to Staupitz — in fact, Staupitz became his father confessor.  As such, Staupitz tried to help Luther with his spiritual struggles.  In 1511, it was Staupitz who urged Luther to become a doctor and preacher of the Augustinians.  The following year, after Luther achieved that goal, Staupitz vacated his position at the University of Wittenberg and had Luther succeed him.

In 1518, he began hearing reports about his successor in Wittenberg.  Staupitz had mixed feelings about what Luther was saying, writing, and doing.  Some of Luther’s concerns resonated with him, but Luther also frightened him somewhat with his boldness.  When it became clear that Luther was in danger of being arrested, Staupitz made the strategic move of releasing him from his vows to the Augustinian order.  This gave Luther more freedom to speak and act.  After this, Staupitz and Luther would only meet one more time, but they continued to exchange letters.

The papal Church put enormous pressure on Staupitz to bring Luther to his senses.  The pressure was applied through the General of the Augustinian order.  Eventually, in 1520-21, Staupitz resigned his position within the order and even left it altogether.  He became a Benedictine monk instead, trying to retire to a peaceful life within a monastery.  When Luther heard of this, he wrote to Staupitz and rebuked him for his cowardice.  Staupitz replied with a letter in which he reaffirmed his love for Luther, but also insisted that he could not break with the papacy.

He became sick in the spring of 1524 and, after languishing throughout that year, died on December 28.  He died as a member in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church, but one always under suspicion.  In fact, in 1559, the writings of Staupitz were put on “the index,” the Roman Catholic list of banned books.  One might say that this makes Johann von Staupitz an honorary Protestant.

The Theology of Staupitz

When we look at his theology, we start to see that even in the late medieval period, there were theologians who were almost getting the gospel right.  Because of his work in biblical studies, Staupitz was on the right track, even if he still missed some key elements.  His theology was erroneous in maintaining the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  He believed that the Virgin Mary was born without original sin.  He held to some unhealthy and unbiblical mysticism.  He still spoke of the mass as a sacrifice.  Yet he was getting closer to the truth than almost anyone before him.  I’ll briefly mention his doctrine of the covenant, his view of human nature, the doctrine of election, and justification.

Staupitz taught a doctrine of the covenant in which God not only establishes the conditions, but also meets those conditions.  God does that through Jesus Christ and his redemptive work.  Everything in this covenant is offered to the elect unconditionally.  Unlike many medieval theologians before him, Staupitz taught a covenant of grace where the faithfulness and grace of God were strongly emphasized.

When it came to human nature, Staupitz had a dim view.  He rejected the Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism of other medieval theologians.  After the fall into sin, the will of man is in bondage.  Man is a prisoner of himself and of self-love.  Therefore, fallen man cannot do what is pleasing to God.  Staupitz wrote, “…man’s nature is incapable of knowing or wanting or doing good.  For this barren man God is sheer fear.”

The biblical doctrine of election also comes out in Staupitz’s theology.  Many medieval theologians taught that election is based on the foreseen behaviour of individual human beings.  Not Staupitz.  Rather, for him, election is based on God’s sovereign good pleasure.

On justification, Staupitz was almost there.  He did not see justification as a process, but as an event.  But whereas many medieval theologians confused justification and sanctification (hence describing it as a process), Staupitz confused the events of justification and regeneration.  In the event of justification, he said, God becomes pleasing and desirable to man.  It happens by the grace of God and through faith, but justification is not a legal event where God the Judge declares the sinner to be righteous.  Instead, Staupitz viewed justification in more relational terms.  Whereas fallen sinners are enslaved to self-love, through justification sinners are freed to love Christ.  In our Reformed theological terms, we would say that this happens in the event of initial regeneration.

Conclusion

There can be no question that Staupitz influenced Luther in his theology, perhaps more than any other individual.  But it’s also important to realize that God worked through Staupitz to put Luther right where he needed to be:  at the University of Wittenberg.  When Luther was under attack, Staupitz was one of the instrumental forces protecting him.  Luther therefore owed a lot to Staupitz, not only personally and theologically, but also academically and strategically.  This friend and ally was weak in some ways, but without him, there could have been no Reformation.  For this reason, the Lutheran Church honours him with his own day on their Calendar of Saints (November 8).  We Reformed do not follow such a calendar, but we can and still should praise God for what he did through this man.


The Glorious Gospel of Imputation

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I love Starr Meade’s book of family devotions based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  To catechize our children during family worship, we’ve been using Training Hearts, Teaching Minds for many years.  In fact, we’re on our second copy of it — the first one just fell apart after some years of heavy daily use.

Tonight at our church catechism class, I have the joy of teaching Lord’s Day 23 again.  Lord’s Day 23 deals with justification, God’s declaration that we are right with him on account of Christ’s righteousness.  Included in justification is the crucial notion of imputation.  Our sins are imputed or accounted to Christ, and his righteousness is imputed or accounted to us.  This goes to the basis of our justification.  Starr Meade has an excellent illustration that explains the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience, his obedience to the law and his suffering obedience.  I plan to use this illustration tonight with my catechism students:

Imagine that you need a great deal of money for something important.  However, not only do you not have a great deal of money; you are deeply in debt.  Along comes your friend who has worked hard for years to build a big savings account in the bank.  He feels sorry for you and offers to pay your bills.  Now you are no longer in debt.  This is something like Jesus paying for our sin by his death on the cross.  Now we no longer owe God anything for all our sins against him.

However, just because your friend paid your debt does not mean that you have solved your problem.  You still need a great deal of money and you have absolutely none.  So now your friend does something else for you.  He has your name added to his bank account so that now you can use all his money.  This is something like Jesus living a life of perfect obedience to God in our place.  He is the One who is righteous.  He is the One who did the obeying, but all his righteousness is credited to us.  God counts the righteousness of Christ as ours. (Training Hearts, Teaching Minds, 111-112)

To put it another way, through Christ we don’t merely have our slates wiped clean of all our sins.  We also have our slates filled with all of his God-pleasing obedience in our place.  This, and this alone, makes us acceptable in God’s sight.


Book Review: J.I. Packer, An Evangelical Life

J I Packer -- An Evangelical Life

J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life, Leland Ryken.  Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 2015.  Hardcover, 431 pages, $39.99 AUD.

I had one recurring thought as I read this biography:  what if J. I. Packer had been born somewhere else other than England?  What if, say, he had been born, raised and educated in the United States?  How would his story have played out differently?  As it is, he was born in England and having spent a good deal of his life there did shape his thinking and influence.  Especially the Church of England has been a dominant force in his life.

This is a unique biography of a unique theologian.  The book is unique because of the approach that Ryken takes – he doesn’t merely give a chronological accounting of Packer’s life.  The first part of the book does that, but part 2 attempts to give a picture of the man and what makes him tick, while part 3 works out some of the themes of his life.

J.I. Packer is well-known to many Reformed readers not only because of the quantity he’s produced, but also the quality.  Just speaking for myself, my first Packer book was his volume on the Puritans, A Quest for Godliness.  This had a huge impact on shaping my attitude towards those saints of old.   Later, when I pursued doctoral studies in missiology, one of my required readings was one of Packer’s first books, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God.  This slender book powerfully argued that a Calvinistic belief in God’s sovereignty is definitely not a death-knell for spreading the gospel – quite the opposite!   Many people have also benefitted from Packer classics such as Knowing God.

The biographer’s stated purpose was to give the reader an acquaintance with James Innell Packer.  Certainly I did come away from it with a better understanding of the man and his contributions.  For example, you learn of Packer’s significant involvement with the English Standard Version (ESV) – he was the general editor of the ESV, the theological editor of the ESV Study Bible, and has done editing work on every ESV study Bible published by Crossway.  Packer was also deeply involved in debates surrounding biblical inerrancy – a debate that he considered to extend far beyond the confines of the United States.  Packer was one of the drafters of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  But you also discover some of his personality – he enjoys jazz music, but reckons jazz took a turn for the worse when Louis Armstrong began playing the trumpet, rather than the cornet.

Readers should not expect to find a critical biography here.  Ryken is obviously a friend of Packer and they have worked together on projects like the ESV.  Ryken is careful to cast his friend in the best possible light – which is what you would expect a friend to do.  However, this does have a drawback in that where a critical stance might have been appropriate, Ryken is either silent or restrained.

As an example, let’s take one of the most controversial affairs in Packer’s life:  his involvement with the 1994 statement entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT).  This was an effort to unite Roman Catholics and evangelicals on a common theological basis in order to take a joint stand against social evils like abortion.  Unfortunately, this common theological basis resulted in the lowest-common denominator form of essential doctrines like justification.  Packer was a key player in the events leading to ECT and a signer.  Ryken spends several pages on the controversy, but he doesn’t mention exactly what the critics’ concerns were.  This is completely overlooked.  So are subsequent developments in this saga.  Packer teamed up with Michael Horton to produce another document, Resolutions for Roman Catholic and Evangelical Dialogue.  This document, also from 1994, was signed by numerous high-profile Presbyterian and Reformed theologians besides Packer.  Ryken doesn’t mention it.  Nor does he mention another ecumenical statement from 1998, The Gift of Salvation.  This was produced by many of the same people involved with ECT in 1994, including Packer.  The Gift of Salvation again compromised on the doctrine of justification by faith alone in the interests of ecumenicity with Roman Catholics.

Towards the end of the book, Ryken exclaims that he cannot understand why certain groups and individuals get so angry at Packer (page 411).  It’s a mystery to him.  I can solve that mystery:  it’s because Packer is rather inconsistent on some key teachings.  For example, he claims to hold to the ultimate authority of the Bible, yet he is lenient on evolution.  He claims to believe in justification by faith alone as a foundational doctrine, yet he readily gives this up when working with Roman Catholics.

Throughout his years in the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada, Packer “consistently endorsed leniency regarding the presence of liberal forces within Anglicanism” (page 321).  In a conversation with Ryken, Packer noted that other churches deal with errors through discipline;  he then made the novel claim that “debate is also a form of discipline” (page 314).  However, he was almost always on the losing end of important debates and the liberal forces for which he had endorsed leniency pushed him out of the Anglican Church of Canada.  This happened in 2008 over the issue of same-sex marriage.  We can commend Packer for maintaining the biblical position on marriage no matter what the cost.  However, at the same time, one wonders what would have happened if he had been more forceful all along with gospel-deniers in Anglicanism, of which there have been plenty.  Would they have forced him out sooner?  More importantly, was leniency really biblically justified (cf. Gal. 1:6-9)?

It’s not a perfect biography, but it was certainly an interesting one.  Readers will gain an understanding of the life and times of this unique, and sometimes perplexing, theologian.  The writing is excellent and easy-to-understand (like Packer himself), but because of Ryken’s approach, there is some overlap and repetition between the parts.   This isn’t the first biography of Packer, but it is the latest.  I’m also quite sure that it won’t be the last – much more remains to be said about his life and legacy, for better and for worse.


We Distinguish…(Part 6) — Moral/Ceremonial/Civil

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In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

The Internet can be one of the most frustrating places to witness someone trying to discredit the Christian faith. It’s so frustrating because it’s almost impossible to have a civil and reasonable exchange. One of the most common tactics has to do with our Christian opposition to same-sex “marriage.” Somewhere online a Christian will mention the Bible texts that condemn homosexual lusts and behaviour. Not long afterwards, the unbeliever comes along and asks the Christian whether he eats shellfish or wears a garment made of two kinds of material. Because, after all, the Bible speaks against these things too! So obviously the Christian is inconsistent – he says he believes what the Bible says, but he only picks and chooses what he’s going to obey. Gotcha!

The unbeliever doesn’t understand the Bible. He may know a few Bible texts, but he probably doesn’t understand how they work together. Many non-Christians think that all biblical commands should be equally applicable. If you’re going to forbid homosexuality, you must also forbid eating bacon. The Bible speaks against both and that settles it.

What the unbeliever doesn’t understand, and what every believer must understand, is a basic distinction between three different types of laws in the Bible. The moral law is God’s permanent will for humanity and it’s summarized in the Ten Commandments. The ceremonial law was God’s will for Old Testament Israel and it partly involved various forms of worship, including the sacrificial system which pointed ahead to Christ. It also included the laws of clean and unclean and more. Under the New Testament, all the ceremonial law has been set aside – fulfilled in Christ, it is not binding on Christians. The civil law was God’s will for the Old Testament nation of Israel. It was largely the application of the moral law to Israel’s particular civil context. While there may be and often are lessons to be learned from the civil law, it too is no longer binding upon Christians as it was upon the Jews in the Old Testament.

So to go back to our example above, the unbeliever equates laws concerning shellfish and garments with what God says about homosexuality. From a Christian perspective, what he is doing is confusing the ceremonial law with the moral law. Christians regard the laws about clean and unclean as part of the ceremonial law – in fact, in Mark 7:19 we read that Jesus explicitly set these laws aside. The Seventh Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” has not been set aside – it is part of God’s moral law. This commandment not only forbids the breaking of one’s marriage vows, but all unchastity, indeed, all forms of sin which undermine God’s good original plan for men and women. Homosexual lusts and behaviours therefore fall under the moral law. No one should be surprised that both the Old and New Testament condemn these things equally (see, for example, Leviticus 19:22, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Cor.6:9-10, Jude 7). This is part of God’s permanent and abiding moral law.

In previous installments of this series, we’ve looked at other distinctions involving the law: specifically, law/gospel (see here) and active/passive obedience (see here). When we speak about the law in those contexts (under the rubric of justification), we’re always speaking about the moral law. So, the law/gospel distinction reminds us that we cannot earn our salvation through our obedience to the moral law. The distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience reminds us that he has earned righteousness for us through his obedience to the moral law. Things would become very messy theologically, even dangerously messy, if we were to substitute one of the other categories. Therefore, this distinction is important not only for our discussions with unbelievers, but also for properly understanding how key parts of our salvation fit together.

This distinction between moral/ceremonial/civil law is clearly made in the Westminster Confession, chapter 19. It can also be found, albeit not quite as obviously, in article 25 of the Belgic Confession: “We believe that the ceremonies and symbols of the law have ceased with the coming of Christ, and that all shadows have been fulfilled, so that the use of them ought to be abolished among Christians.” Ceremonies are clearly identified here, but civil laws of the Old Testament appear under the less technical terms, “symbols” and “shadows.” Article 25 has always been understood to teach and affirm this distinction. It is a distinction with a long historical pedigree. The Reformation did not discover it, rather it was first articulated in the early church, and then later reaffirmed by theologians in the Middle Ages. Reformed theologians simply restated what had already been correctly formulated – this distinction provides a good example where there was no need for reform. This part of the Christian tradition is solidly biblical.

There is far more that could be said about this distinction. I could elaborate on several points, but my goal here is to keep things as short and simple as possible. The Bible includes many commands from Genesis to Revelation. I simply want you to understand that not all these commands apply to us in the same way they applied to their first readers. Good students of the Bible recognize this and use the above distinction to properly understand the Word of God, defend it, and live according to it.


We Distinguish…(Part 5) — Active/Passive Obedience

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In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

On the first of January, 1937, a dying J. Gresham Machen mustered up the strength to send one last telegram to his friend John Murray: “I’m so thankful for active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” One of the founding fathers of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church made a point of stressing Christ’s active obedience in his last hours on this earth. It would be, however, a grave mistake to assume that this doctrine is uniquely Presbyterian. Not only is it found in the Three Forms of Unity, it’s also shared with confessional Lutherans (as I’ve demonstrated here).

We speak of a distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience. We need to carefully define the terms, because they have sometimes been misunderstood as opposites. In normal English conversation, “active” and “passive” usually are opposites. “Passive” is typically denotes inactivity. However, in the context of Reformed theology, the word “passive” is derived from the Latin passio and it refers to Christ’s suffering – something in which he was definitely not inactive. Passive obedience, therefore, refers to Christ’s obedience in suffering the wrath of God against our sins. Christ’s active obedience speaks of his obeying the law of God perfectly in our place throughout his life – an active, positive righteousness that is imputed or accounted to believers. In Christ’s passive obedience we have the payment demanded so that our sins can be fully forgiven. In his active obedience we have the perfect conformity to God’s law demanded of all human beings. These must be taken together, and when they are, they form the basis of our justification (our being declared right with God as Judge).

This distinction is valuable because it points up how good the good news really is. We are not just promised forgiveness in Christ. In our Saviour, we are promised and given perfect righteousness in the sight of God. As God looks at us in Jesus Christ, he sees people who have been perfectly and consistently obedient to his law. Because of Christ’s active obedience imputed to us, God sees us as flawlessly obeying him not just in the externals, but also 100% from and in the heart.

When it comes to biblical support, there’s really no debating the passive obedience of Christ. The Bible is clear that he suffered in obedience to God’s will so that we can be forgiven all our trespasses (e.g. Hebrews 2:10-18). But what about the active obedience of Christ?   According to Romans 2:13, “doers of the law will be justified.” Galatians 3:10 reminds us that if you do not do everything written in the law, you are under a curse. God demands perfect obedience to his moral law. Romans 5 is one of the clearest places speaking to the fulfillment of this demand in Christ. There Adam and Jesus are contrasted in their disobedience and obedience. Says the Holy Spirit in Rom. 5:19, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” The “one man’s obedience” there refers to Christ’s work on our behalf, including and especially his obedience to all of God’s law. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 reminds us, all our sins were imputed to Christ, and all his righteousness is imputed to us.

Since it’s found in Scripture, it’s no surprise to find it in the Three Forms of Unity. For example, it’s implied in chapter 2 of the Canons of Dort, in the Rejection of Errors #4. The Arminians taught that God had “revoked the demand of perfect obedience to the law.” The Synod of Dort said that this contradicted the Bible and was part of “a new and strange justification of man before God.” At the bare minimum, the Canons of Dort maintain that God still does demand perfect obedience to his law. However, the Canons do not explicitly say how this demand is to be met.

But that is not to say that the Synod of Dort ignored this issue. Far from it! In fact, the denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ was an issue amongst the Reformed churches of that period. As a result, the Synod of Dort edited article 22 of the Belgic Confession on this point to clarify that Christ’s active obedience is essential to Reformed orthodoxy. The revised article 22 reads (the underlined words were added by Dort): [God] “imputes to us all [Christ’s] merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.” This result brought the Dutch Reformed churches into line with the English and the French – they had also previously ruled that Christ’s active obedience was a non-negotiable point of Reformed doctrine. Later, in 1693, the Walcheren Articles appeared in the Netherlands and these were even more resolute on this question. Denying the imputation of the active obedience of Christ is not an option for Reformed confessors.

Unfortunately, in our day there have been some who have either denied or minimized this point of doctrine. I’m thinking especially of some figures associated with the Federal Vision movement. I’ve briefly addressed their teachings in a booklet (which you can find here). Suffice it to say that attempting to sideline this doctrine: 1) requires a dishonest handling of the Reformed confessions, 2) requires a reconfiguration of the biblical doctrine of justification, and 3) robs Reformed believers of comfort, joy, and strength in Christ.  This is not making a mountain out of a doctrinal molehill.

For those who would like to read more on this important topic, Dr. N. H. Gootjes has an excellent essay entitled “Christ’s Obedience and Covenant Obedience.” It’s in chapter 4 of his book Teaching and Preaching the Word. I also have a copy available online here.