Tag Archives: Martin Luther

Quotable Church History: “The doctrine by which the Church stands or falls”

This is the sixth in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

“Justification is the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls.”  This saying is often attributed to Martin Luther.  There’s no question Luther accorded central importance to justification.  However, so did other Reformers.  For example, in his Institutes, Calvin famously insists that justification “is the main hinge on which religion turns” (Institutes 3.11.1).  However, the exact wording of today’s quote comes from neither Luther nor Calvin.  Instead, from what I can tell, these exact words come from a later Reformed theologian from Germany, Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588-1638).  In his Theologia Scholastica Didacta Alsted wrote, “The article of justification is said to be the article by which the Church stands and falls.”  From the fact that he wrote “said to be,” it would seem that he was not coining a new aphorism, but simply rehearsing and expounding an already well-known expression.

To understand why Alsted and others made such claims, it is essential to review the basics of this doctrine.  Simply put, justification is God’s declaration that a sinner is righteous.  This declaration is made solely on the basis of the imputed passive and active obedience of Christ.  In other words, it is only because Christ’s work on the cross (passive obedience) and his perfect life of law-keeping (active obedience) are credited to the sinner.  Faith, resting and trusting in Christ, is the sole instrument by which we receive this tremendous treasure.  What follows from this declaration of justification is a transformed relationship with God — no longer do we relate to him as a Judge with whom we have a relationship of hostility.  Now we relate to him as our Father with whom we have a relationship of deep filial affection.  That beautiful relationship is foundational to the Christian life.

Clarifying further, we do not confess that justification by itself is the gospel.  Nor do we believe that the doctrine of justification exhausts the goodness of the good news.  In the Heidelberg Catechism, Reformed churches maintain that the Apostles’ Creed summarizes “all that is promised us in the gospel” (QA 22).  That obviously goes far beyond justification.  The gospel promises us righteousness in Christ to deal with the curse of sin, but it also promises the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit to deal with the power of sin — and more.  Nevertheless, justification is the central facet of the gospel diamond.  It is of prime importance.  Without justification, nothing else in the gospel is of any value to us.  This, again, is because of its relational significance.  Apart from a relationship of fellowship with God, we are still under the deadly curse.

Is it biblical to say “justification is the article by which the Church stands or falls”?  To answer that, we need to turn to Galatians.  In the original Galatian context, the Judaizers were preaching a message which included the sinner’s great need for the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  The problem was that they added to that the sinner’s own need to perform deeds of righteousness, including following Jewish ceremonial requirements like circumcision.  Thus, it was not Christ alone as the basis for our standing with God.   This is what the Holy Spirit said through Paul in response to this:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.  As we have said before, so now I say again:  If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.  (Galatians 1:6-9)

Those are powerful words!  If a different gospel is preached, that preacher should go to hell.  If a different gospel is received, the recipient will go to hell.  Standing or falling is indeed what’s at stake.  A church that doesn’t get justification correct is in danger of falling into the pits of hell.  On the flip side, a church that receives the biblical gospel, including a correct understanding of our righteousness before God, will stand firmly.

In my pastoral experience, I have noticed that justification is often poorly understood amongst many Reformed believers.  I have encountered widespread ignorance about the vital role of the active obedience of Christ.  I have seen a preconfession textbook (from a Reformed publisher) teaching the erroneous notion that justification is a life-long process rather than an event — a notion which is traditionally found in Roman Catholicism rather than Reformed theology.  I have heard countless believers speak of justification as God making us righteous — stripping away the crucial vision of justification as a courtroom declaration.  There’s the common misconception that justification is merely a verdict of innocence rather than righteousness.  There are those who still believe that as Christians, we relate to God as our Judge and do not see him as our loving Father.  There are those in our churches who argue that Christians are not sinners but only saints, failing to come to terms with the biblical concept of imputation.  The list could go on.  If justification is truly the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, we see ample evidence that pastors and other church leaders have to do better at teaching it.  I certainly recommit to doing my part in ensuring that the church I serve will stand with this doctrine.

 


Quotable Church History: “You are going to burn a goose…”

This is the fifth in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and, where applicable, whether it’s biblical.

Today we’re looking at something from one of “Forerunners of the Reformation.”  There were several notable figures who came before Luther.  Men like Jan Huss (1372-1415) hit on some of the same concerns Luther would about a century later.  While Huss accepted Catholic teachings such as transubstantiation and purgatory, he rejected indulgences and the position of the pope as the head of the Church.  Huss argued that Christ is the only head of the church and the Church must submit to the Word of God as its ultimate authority.   His critiques brought him into conflict with the Church.  On a promise of safe passage from the Holy Roman Emperor, Huss appeared at the Council of Constance with the hope of clearing his name.  It didn’t happen.  Instead, he was determined to be a damnable heretic and condemned to burn at the stake.  Before he was martyred, various sources will tell you Huss said something like, “You are going to burn a goose [“Huss” means “goose” in Bohemian], but in a century you will have a swan that you can neither roast nor boil.”

It’s a great quote, but unfortunately Huss likely never said it.

Huss was known to do word plays with his surname.  He was exiled from his home city of Prague in 1412 and, while in exile, he wrote a letter to the “believers in Prague.”  He referred to his enemies as those who wanted to “entwine the simple bird in the snare of citations and anathemas.”  Huss goes on to write:  “But if that bird, which is a mere domestic fowl, whose flight is circumscribed, and far from lofty, has broken through their nets, how much more will other birds that soar aloft as they announce the Word of God, despise such intellectual wiles.”  Note well: that’s a reference to soaring birds of prey, not to swans.  There’s also nothing about burning, roasting, or boiling.  In fact, this letter appears well before his fate as a martyr had been determined by the Council of Constance in 1415.

So what are the origins of this quote?  Apparently Martin Luther.  Luther wrote,

St. John Huss prophesied of me when he wrote from his prison in Bohemia, “They will roast a goose now (for ‘Huss’ means ‘a goose’), but after a hundred years they will hear a swan sing, and him they will endure.” And that is the way it will be, if God wills.

But the problem remains that we don’t have a primary source where we find Huss writing this.  In an article entitled “Incombustible Luther,” Robert Scribner hypothesizes that Luther combined what Huss wrote in 1412 (quoted above) with a statement made by another martyr condemned by the Council of Constance, Jerome of Prague.  A follower of Huss, Jerome had said that he wished to see what people would think of his condemnation a hundred years hence.  Luther seems to have put those two things together.  According to Scribner, at Luther’s funeral his eulogist Johannes Bugenhagen took it a step further and now Hus’ words became:  “You may burn a goose, but in a hundred years will come a swan you will not be able to burn.”  By 1556, these words were commonly believed to have been said by Huss as he went to his death.

Taken together, all this means it is highly likely Huss never said these words.  In all likelihood, it’s just a pious legend.  In hindsight, however, we can see how God did prepare the way for the Reformation through men like Huss.  Huss left behind a lasting legacy of anti-clericalism in Europe.  This providentially gave Luther the freedom to preach as he did — so when the Catholic Church would try to silence Luther as it did Huss, it would end in failure for them and success for the gospel.


Quotable Church History: “Here I stand…”

This is the fourth in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

Martin Luther’s appearance at the Diet of Worms in April of 1521 is one of the most dramatic (and dramatized) events in Reformation church history.  Summoned to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor, Luther was supposed to repudiate his writings and terminate the Reformation movement once and for all.  At his first appearance, Luther fearfully hesitated.  He was granted a day’s reprieve.  On April 18, he appeared with a fresh measure of boldness.  He owned his writings and allowed that in some of them perhaps he had written too rashly.  But in other books and pamphlets, he had spoken of faith and piety in such a manner that even his critics had to grant there was some value.  Still in other writings, he had critiqued the abuses and apostasy of the Roman Church.  If he would recant these, he said, he would “add strength to tyranny.”  He insisted that unless he was convinced by Scripture or by plain reason, he would not back down, his conscience being held captive to the Word of God.

It’s the conclusion of Luther’s address to the Diet of Worms that bears some extra attention.  In most portrayals, literary, cinematic and otherwise, we hear Luther saying something like this:  “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.  God help me.  Amen.”  But did Luther really say this?

The official transcript of the Diet of Worms would suggest that he did not.  This is how the record reads:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason — for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves — I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound.  God help me.  Amen.

Notice how the ending is quite different from the commonly accepted version.  There is no “Here I stand.”  Where did the extra words come from?

They appeared in the version Luther’s supporters published shortly thereafter in Wittenberg.  This was the version that became embedded in the popular mind.  As Lyndal Roper comments in her biography Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, the words “certainly encapsulated the spirit of his appearance” (p.183).  But did Luther actually say it?  We have no way of knowing for sure.  Perhaps eyewitnesses brought this aspect of the account back to Wittenberg, or perhaps Luther himself reported what he said.  As for the discrepancy with the official record, Roland Bainton suggests this explanation:  “The words, though not recorded on the spot, may nevertheless be genuine, because the listeners at the moment may have been too moved to write” (Here I Stand, p.185).  But it could also be that the official record is correct and Luther’s supporters (intentionally or not) embellished his words.

Whether or not Luther said these exact words, it is eminently biblical to take this sort of uncompromising stance when the gospel is at stake.  Luther was motivated by a desire to bring the church back to the Scriptures, back to the Christ of the Scriptures.  He saw how things had gone off track and how things needed to be reformed.  The church had to get back to the gospel — there was no other way.  Luther’s position was Pauline.  Paul wrote of those who would preach another gospel.  Even if it would be angel from heaven, he said that such a one should be accursed (Gal. 1:6-9).  In Luther’s mind, the Roman Church had been corrupted by the preaching of another gospel.  How could he, at the Diet of Worms, then compromise and recant?  Would he not then share in Rome’s accursedness?  He had no choice but to stand firm.

Luther is a legendary figure in church history and, as with all legendary figures, there are legends surrounding him — some with less truth than others.  One thing is certain, however:  God worked through him to recover the gospel in a dark era.  God gave him the boldness to stand fast on the cardinal truths of Scripture and for this all Protestants ought to be eternally grateful.

 


The Reformation and Doxology

Five hundred years!  Today is the day we mark a half millennia since God brought Reformation to his church.  Over these five centuries, Reformed biblical theology has spread far and wide.  Its influence has infiltrated into various cultures and sub-cultures around the globe.  For this, we ought to praise God and vigorously.

One of the surprising sub-cultures where Reformation theology has found a home today is American hip-hop.  One of the leading voices in this development is Shai Linne.  In the spoken word intro to his album Lyrical Theology Part 2: Doxology, Shai makes this astute observation:  “If you have theology without doxology, you just have cold dead orthodoxy…If you have doxology without theology, you actually have idolatry.”  He’s right.

Theology (the study of who God is and what he’s done) should lead us right to doxology (proper praise for God).  The two belong together and must never be separated.  So when we consider the Reformation, we’re not doing it right if we’re not ending up on our knees in adoration for God.  There are all sorts of reasons why remembering the Reformation should bring us to worship — the chief being the recovery of the biblical gospel.  Without that gain, everything else is meaningless.  Praise God that he peeled away the ignorance, brought back the Bible, and brought widespread gospel preaching back to his church!

Let me mention three other reasons why we ought to be praising God today for the Reformation.

The Recovery of Certainty and Assurance

When many medieval Christians went to church, they were immediately confronted with an image of Christ.  It was not an image of Christ as Saviour, but as the coming Judge of heaven and earth.  The medieval church wanted to put the fear of Jesus into its members.  You were always supposed to be afraid and wondering whether you would be good enough for him.  You would never know the answer to that question until after you died.  For the average believer, the prospect of purgatory always loomed.  You could not be sure that you would go to God’s blessed presence the moment you died, because most likely you wouldn’t.  What a horrible distortion of the Christian faith!

The Reformation brought back the Bible’s message of justification.  If you believe in Jesus Christ, you are declared right by God.  The Judge is now your Father.  As his beloved child, you need not fear judgment.  When you die, because of God’s verdict in your justification, you can be absolutely 100% certain that you will be going to his blessed presence.  As one Reformation catechism put, “Our death is not a payment for our sins, but it puts an end to sin and is an entrance into eternal life” (Heidelberg Catechism QA 42).  Praise God that we are not left wobbly and doubting!  Praise God for the Reformation’s recovery of gospel certainty!

The Restoration of the Voice of God’s People in Worship

Prior to the Reformation, when you went to mass you mainly went as a spectator.  Almost everything was done by someone else, mainly the priest and his assistants.  Congregation members were typically passive participants.  Since much of the service was in Latin, it could not be otherwise.  The idea of congregational singing was known, but not widely practiced.

With the Reformation, this began to change dramatically.  Christian worship becomes a more active affair for congregation members.  They are not only to watch or listen, but also to participate and particularly in song.  One of John Calvin’s priorities was the preparation of a metrical Psalter in the language of the people.  This was because he understood that the congregation should be lifting up its voice in worship.  In Reformed churches today, this continues to be the practice.  We emphasize congregational singing, the priesthood of all believers melodiously lifting up the Name of God.  We don’t go to church to listen to a choir sing or listen to soloists, but to lift up our own voices in praise to God.  This is as it should be.  Let’s praise God that we can praise him each Lord’s Day from our own hearts with our own tongues and lips!

The Humanity of the Reformers and their Example

When we look closely at the men whom God used to recover the gospel in the Reformation, one of the striking things is that they were just, well…men.  They were not super saints.  They had warts and blemishes.  For example, Luther famously ran off his mouth and was known for saying some things a bit strongly, if not strangely — and even sometimes wrongly.  Yet through their weaknesses, the power of God was made strong.  God amazingly worked through weak and sinful men to bring something about that’s still having a ripple effect to this day.

They were people with families.  When they faced death or martyrdom, they wrote like regular people because that’s what they were.  If you haven’t already, you need to read the powerful last letter of Guido de Brès to his wife.  See if you can read that without praising God for the example of this Reformation pastor.  I read that letter and I can’t help but doxologize.  God worked steadfast faithfulness in his servants and it was not in vain.  The gospel for which de Brès died outlived him and spread far beyond his little corner of the world.  God worked through them, through their humanity, and he left examples for us to follow.

There are many more reasons why we can be praising God today as we remember the Reformation.  Along with the recovery of the gospel as number one, those three above certainly rank up there for me.  They lead me to this:

Oh sing to the LORD a new song,

for he has done marvelous things!

His right hand and his holy arm

have worked salvation for him…

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;

break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

Psalm 98:1,4


Pillars of the Reformation

The Reformation started 500 years ago with a protest against indulgences.  Rome had adopted the idea that there is a place called purgatory where believers must spend time before they can expect to arrive in heaven.  Purgatory is a place of torment where the believer  is “purged” (cleansed) from his or her remaining sins.  But one’s time in purgatory could be shortened through the purchase of an indulgence from the church.  Buying this certificate, one allegedly received access to the treasury of merit achieved by Christ and the saints.  It was a win-win for everyone — the church made extra money for the building of St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome and the believer could reduce purge time for himself or loved ones.  But a German monk named Martin Luther would have none of it — he published the 95 Theses in 1517, a protest against indulgences.  That was just the start of the Reformation in the early 1500s.

As the Reformation progressed, it became evident that there were five main issues in debate.  We sometimes call these the five pillars of the Reformation — they’re also known as the five ‘solas.’  Let’s review them.

Sola Scriptura — by the Bible alone.  Rome taught that the Bible is authoritative for believers.  But Rome also taught that tradition and the Church are also authoritative.  The Reformation maintained that the Bible alone is the ultimate authority for what we believe and how we live.

Sola Gratia — by grace alone.  Rome taught that believers need God’s grace to be saved.  But Rome also taught that believers need to cooperate with God’s grace in order to be saved.  Salvation is by grace plus good works.  The Reformation maintained that salvation comes by God’s grace alone.  When it comes to the basis of our salvation, we do not merit anything, indeed, we cannot merit anything before God.

Sola Fide — by faith alone.  This has to do with justification.  Rome taught that justification is a life-long process.  At the end of your life, God will make his judgment about you based on what you did, particularly your good works.  The Reformation maintained that justification is an event whereby God declares that the sinner is righteous through Jesus Christ.  Justification is received through faith alone.  In justification, faith is simply receiving Jesus Christ as your righteousness.  Good works are not part of the equation (though they certainly flow forth in the justified person’s life as a fruit).

Solus Christus — Christ alone.   Rome taught that every believer needs Jesus Christ.  However, the papacy also taught that one needs the Virgin Mary and the saints.  Christ is not enough.  Against that, the Reformation maintained that everything we need for our salvation is in Jesus Christ alone.

Soli Deo Gloria — to God alone be the glory.  Rome taught that God ought to be praised for salvation.  However, they included good works in the basis of salvation.  They gave a place to Mary and the saints alongside Christ as the Redeemer.  Human beings had to cooperate with God’s grace for justification and salvation.  The inevitable conclusion is that God gets praise, but so do human beings.  The Reformation objected.  The Reformation upheld the biblical teaching of Psalm 115:1, “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory..”  All the credit, all the glory, all the praise, goes to God for our salvation.

These five pillars continue to be vitally important for the church today.  Rome still teaches what it always has.  But perhaps of more relevance is the fact that our natural human tendency is to drift away from each of these teachings.  The natural human inclination is not to give God his exclusive due.  We’re bent towards taking credit for ourselves and not acknowledging God’s exclusive authority in our lives.  Pride is our default mode.  The five pillars put us in a proper posture of humility before God.  Therefore, Christians today neglect the five pillars to their own detriment and, more tragically, to a degradation of God’s glory.  As we celebrate the Reformation, let’s be thankful for these teachings and continue to maintain them.