History of Christianity

Interview with Ashley Null

Interview with Ashley Null

Ashley Null is one of the world’s foremost experts on Thomas Cranmer. He is canon theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Kansas, visiting fellow at Cambridge, visiting research fellow at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview him.


What are you currently working on?

I am preparing a critical edition of Cranmer’s private theological notebooks for Oxford University Press—a five-volume project. The first volume, The Efficacious Word of God, should be available in print this time next year.


What can you tell us about what you are finding and why this is so important?

As part of this project, I have located Cranmer’s massive research notes on the Eucharist during the time he was preparing the prayer books. They shed much more light on his understanding of the Eucharist, including the importance of Eastern sources in his thought. These papers should forever close the debate on whether Cranmer was a “mere memoralist.” He clearly believed the Eucharist was fundamentally a fresh, supernatural encounter with Christ which promoted sanctification in the believer.


How is a better understanding of Cranmer, his influence and his theology, fuel for a more robust focus on evangelism and mission?

Firstly, Cranmer’s commitment to the transforming power of Scripture is the only solid hope any church has for a fruitful mission program. Unless our efforts are built on God’s Word, we have no truth or hope to offer folks. Remembering that this was the foundational truth of our first Anglican formularies can help guide our contemporary sense of what it means to be Episcopalian.

Secondly, Cranmer’s understanding of human nature and the importance of the affections can help us have a much better understanding of those we are trying to reach with the Gospel. According to Cranmer, “what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” As shrewd observers of human nature, the Reformers realized that there were forces that drive people, often without them realizing it. Real change can only happen when those sub-conscious needs are addressed, and the greatest need is to be loved. Only when we know we are loved can we gain the power to love others. Until then, all our efforts, whether we be aware of it or not, are directed at making ourselves feel loved. Until then, the role of reason is simply to justify our efforts at self-love, often in the form of self-gratification. Since many people think they have to be good enough first before God can love them, they avoid church, since they fear going there will make them feel unloved. Therefore, any effective evangelistic strategy must begin with proclaiming the unconditional love of God for sinners.

Thirdly, we live in a culture where we are defined by what we do, rather than by whom we are loved. That was the issue that Cranmer faced in his day, and his presentation of the Gospel was tailored to meet that cultural challenge in the light of human nature. We can learn so much from his notion of divine allurement as summarized in the Comfortable Words. Step by step, Cranmer’s gospel sentences begin with felt human needs and gradually lead people to see the glory of God as revealed in his unconditional love for the unworthy in the cross of Christ.

Fourthly, Cranmer was the originator of the Anglican concept of the difference between biblically determined essentials and church-determined non-essentials. In a time when there is so much confusion between these two categories, it is helpful to remember their original meaning in the Anglican context. Cranmer thought Jesus came to proclaim a message that had the power to create a community. How that message was proclaimed would depend on the cultural context of the audience. Just as his gospel of divine allurement was thoroughly biblical but still shaped to address contemporary needs and issues, Cranmer believed that the church in every generation needed to rethink its liturgy and institutional life to make sure it expressed the unchanging Gospel in terms understandable to ever evolving contemporary culture. The great advantage of this understanding of mission is its sensitivity to the great diversity of human flourishing. The church will not be expected to look the same amongst different people groups, although they believe the same truths. Of course, the great danger of this understanding of mission is that cultural accommodation can lead to cultural capitulation, i.e., cultural truths can replace biblical truths in the name of contextualization.

Lastly, we can still learn from Cranmer’s understanding of the relationship between good theology and a great society. According to Cranmer, grace leads to gratitude, gratitude births love, love leads to repentance, repentance produces good works, good works make for a better society. What better mission strategy could a church follow?


Books by Ashley


Why You Shouldn’t Call That False Teaching a Heresy

Why You Shouldn’t Call That False Teaching a Heresy

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today (October 2016).

A group of bloggers seeking reform in Southern Baptist circles recently decried pastor Rick Warren for teaching that God communicates to believers via dreams. The bloggers named Warren and other speakers at a 2015 Hillsong conference “heretical preachers that claim extra-biblical revelation from God.” To be sure, the nature of God’s revelation has been debated throughout church history, and overemphasis on dream interpretation can be theologically dangerous.

Elsewhere, a UK Christian leader has devoted much of his writing and teaching to criticizing Christian Zionism—the belief that the founding of the State of Israel is foretold in Scripture. He and others have begun calling Zionism and its political implications “heresy” in online columns. And their views are not unique: Many Christians believe that Zionism is a misreading of God’s promises throughout the Old Testament.

But are these problems of heresy? Both complementarian and egalitarian leaders have taken to the Internet to call each other’s views on gender and leadership heresy. That, though their respective movements have officially existed for about 30 years.

Some say the Internet has democratized knowledge. Clearly, it has also democratized theologizing. Anyone with a computer and Wifi access can publish their thoughts and declarations onto a level pixelated playing field. Some blogs and Twitter accounts exist solely to cry foul whenever a well-known preacher makes a controversial statement.

Yet the frequency and volume of the proclamations from these sources—and from those who share and retweet them—suggest that some Christians don’t understand the significance of right doctrine, or the gravity of heresy charges. Worse, these disputes lead some to believe that doctrine isn’t worth the effort, since it seems only to breed division rather than promote Christlikeness.

Given our volatile online atmosphere, Christians in general and evangelicals in particular need a clearer definition of heresy. We need to know how to spot the difference between essential truths of the Christian faith and doctrines over which we can disagree and still remain faithful to Christian teaching. Even with a good definition, doctrinal assessment requires wisdom and discernment. It often involves two different ends: first, avoiding overuse of the heresy charge, which strips the word of its usefulness; and second, correcting Christians with beliefs that are false and that can undermine the integrity of the church.

Why Doctrine Is So Important

We may be tempted to think that since theology so easily divides, we are better off simply agreeing to disagree. After all, Jesus said that if we love God and others, we are fulfilling the law. “Why,” some ask, “does it matter that we believe the right things about God, so long as we love him?”

It is certainly true that loving God and others is at the heart of the gospel. But Jesus calls us to love God with our heart, soul, strength, and mind. Loving God involves thinking rightly about him, just as loving a friend or significant other involves rightly knowing their interests, beliefs, habits, and history.

When the Israelites taught their children about God, they recalled all he had done for them and their forebears. They worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the One who had delivered them out of Egypt. And they used specific phrases to describe him and what he had done. These specific phrases distinguished the God of the Israelites from the gods of their pagan neighbors.

Orthodox statements about the Trinity and Jesus Christ function similarly. They identify the God we worship and describe his saving relationship to us. Therefore, in order to love God aright, and to be assured of the salvation he offers, we must know who God is and what he has done for us in and through Jesus Christ.

The Bible reserves strong language for false teachers who promote beliefs that undermine or contradict the gospel. Bruce Demarest, a theologian at Denver Seminary, writes that the New Testament “expresses serious concern for ‘false doctrines’ and places the highest priority on maintaining ‘the pattern of sound teaching.’ Scripture urges Christians to be alert to doctrinal deception and to avoid heresy by carefully guarding the pure content of the gospel.” Again, orthodoxy is not just a matter of theological precision. It’s about making sure the church rightly grasps our God and his work for us in Christ.

That’s why Paul wrote so forcefully to the Galatians, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (1:9, NIV, used throughout). It’s why Peter warned against “false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Pet. 2:1).

It’s also why early Christians wrestled for centuries over the nature and identity of Christ. The church held services and used prayers that worshiped Jesus. But wasn’t he a man in his earthly ministry? If so, did that mean they were practicing idolatry by worshiping a mere man? Or was Jesus in some way divine? Was he divine but only looked human? Or was he human but became divine, for instance, at his baptism? If he wasn’t fully human and fully divine, then could he accomplish salvation for us?

Such were the earliest doctrinal issues to be ironed out, and for very practical reasons: They affected how the church worshiped God and understood salvation. There were also pastoral concerns, to ensure believers living in a pagan world understood what they confessed together as one body. Doctrinal issues may require abstract language to explain, but they are not primarily academic. They have serious implications for how we live and talk about our faith.

A Word Worth Preserving

What is heresy? Literally the word means “choice”—that is, a choice to deviate from traditional teaching in favor of one’s own insights. The word can also mean “school of thought.” That seems to be Paul’s usage in 1 Corinthians 11:19, where he uses the Greek word haireseis (“faction”). Gradually, the term came to mean “party or sect,” and over time it took on negative connotations.

Some today cast the word heretic in a positive light: a courageous rebel who thinks outside the box and stands up to the “institutional” church. To be sure, some whom the church called heretics have turned out to be heroes; think of how the Catholic Church responded to Galileo when he asserted that the Earth revolves around the sun.

Then there is the almost flippant use of the word, as when others use it to refer to anyone who doesn’t agree with their denominational or theological distinctives.

But just because a word is misused doesn’t mean it is no longer helpful.

Traditionally a heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine, usually by oversimplification, and has thus lost sight of who God truly is or what he has done for us. While most heretics throughout history were asking legitimate questions, they weren’t called heretics simply for asking questions. Their answers were the problem, as was their unwillingness to accept clear and detailed correction. In many cases, the heretics went too far, trying to mold the faith into the shape of unbiblical ideas they found appealing, especially those of pagan Greek philosophy. Or they began to emphasize certain ideas in Scripture to the exclusion of others.

In order to use heresy properly, we must understand that not all theological errors are equal or carry the same ramifications.

Our own tradition, Protestantism, has outlined three kinds of doctrinal error: (1) an error that directly contradicts a fundamental belief (heresy proper, like Arianism—keep reading); (2) an error that indirectly contradicts a fundamental belief (e.g., to teach that God causes suffering implies that God is not good); and (3) an error beyond a fundamental article (e.g., teaching that Christians must speak in tongues to have the Holy Spirit).

More simply, many Christian theologians distinguish heresy from heterodoxy. Heresy, as historian David Christie-Murray explains, is a belief that denies a doctrine “officially defined” as orthodoxy. Heterodoxy, however, is a Christian belief that diverges from a “commonly accepted teaching.” Heresy denies orthodoxy, while heterodoxy adds a questionable or problematic teaching to orthodoxy.

For example, according to Protestants, the Catholic teaching that Mary was born without original sin and remained a virgin for life is heterodox. It’s not heresy, because Catholics affirm orthodox Christology. But it’s heterodox because we Protestants believe only Jesus—the Word made flesh—was free of original sin, and that Catholic teaching adds something not taught in Scripture. However, Oneness Pentecostalism is an example of heresy, because it rejects historic orthodox Trinitarian theology.

The line between heterodoxy and heresy can be blurry, so we need wisdom, discernment, and humility before labeling a person a heretic. Additionally, we must remember that the sum of what Christians should believe is not identical to the essentials we must believe for salvation. We need to leave room for believers to grow in their understanding of the faith. We believe in justification by faith in Christ, not justification by accuracy of doctrine. No one comes into the family of God ready to pen a book on systematic theology. We are saved by grace, not by intellectual precision.

However, we must also remember that faith is not ignorant or naïve. It is informed, resting on a firm understanding of the Good News. Genuine trust requires a reasonable knowledge of what—and more important, who—is being trusted. And growing in knowledge of biblical truth is a vital component of the Christian life.

What Heresy Looks Like

The apostles were not afraid to denounce heresy. If a teaching or practice threatened the gospel’s integrity, they strongly condemned it—as when Paul denounces Peter and the circumcision party in Galatians 2. Yet heresy charges were not lobbed casually. Nor were they aimed at mere theological imprecision.

For instance, a couple named Priscilla and Aquila pulled aside an intelligent, competent teacher of Scripture named Apollos and “explained to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26). We don’t read of them calling him at heretic. Rather, we see them lovingly correcting a theological error. They wanted him to know the truth and the joy that accompanied it, not to condemn him or stir division.

The early church combated heresy by reinforcing biblical doctrine with creeds. Arguably, the earliest creeds appear in the Bible. Many scholars believe Paul is reciting a creed when he summarizes the truths “of first importance”: that Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised on the third day, and appeared to the apostles and many others (1 Cor. 15:3–7).

After the apostolic age, the early church possessed what was known as “the rule of faith,” which Bruce Demarest describes as “brief summaries of essential Christian truths.” Some teachers, however, began to lead movements that blatantly opposed the apostles’ teaching, and the church was compelled to articulate more clearly the essentials of Christianity. Core doctrines like the Trinity and the person of Christ were developed through the early church’s struggle against heresy. And the rule of faith birthed more precise statements like the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Thus, heresies forced Christians to think more precisely and definitively about the truth of the gospel.

Three important heresies stand out.


Marcion was the son of the bishop of Sinope, Pontus (in modern-day Turkey). Around 140, he traveled to Rome, where he was welcomed by the church, but by 144, his views had gotten him into trouble, and he was excommunicated.

Among other troubling beliefs, Marcion taught that the God of the Old Testament was legalistic and wrathful, a fundamentally different being from the gracious and loving God of the New. He rejected the authority of the Old Testament, and also attempted to liberate the church from all law. He believed the only way to do this was to rid Christianity of all traces of Judaism. Marcion ended up creating his own Bible, which included only a shorter and earlier version of the Gospel of Luke and ten epistles of Paul. Marcion also edited these books. For example, he cut all Old Testament citations from Paul’s letters.

The early church concluded that Marcion’s divisions between law and gospel, Old and New Testaments, were foreign to the apostles’ teaching. Second-century theologian and bishop Irenaeus spoke forcefully against Marcion. He wrote that Marcion “mutilated the Gospel according to Luke, removing all the narratives of the Lord’s birth, and also removing much of the teaching of the discourses of the Lord wherein he is most manifestly described as acknowledging the maker of this universe to be his father.”


During the second and third centuries, Christians struggled to reconcile the oneness of God—“I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Isa. 45:5)—with the three divine names that appear at the end of Matthew: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19).

If there is no God besides the God of Israel, who are the Son and the Holy Spirit? Are they newer gods who had just been revealed? Are they less divine than the Father? A third-century priest named Sabellius concluded that FatherSon, and HolySpirit were labels for the three different ways God had revealed himself.

His views became known as Sabellianism, better known today as Modalism. This heresy teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not distinct persons but simply different modes or forms of God. Sabellians maintained that any Scripture passage suggesting that God is more than one person must be interpreted metaphorically.

But an African theologian named Tertullian argued that a metaphorical interpretation twisted the terms Father and Son, which were revealed to us to convey something real about God. “In order to be a husband, I must have a wife,” Tertullian wrote. “I can never myself be my own wife. In like manner, in order to be a father, I have a son, for I never can be a son to myself; and in order to be a son, I have a father, it being impossible for me ever to be my own father.” Further, he showed that Christ revealed his deity to the apostles by assuming attributes of the God of Israel (when he said, for example, “I am,” in John 8:58, harkening to “I Am Who I Am” in Exodus 3:14), and by calling on God the Father as a distinct witness to his own identity.


Theology doesn’t often cause urban uprisings, but it did in Alexandria, Egypt, in 318. That year, people streamed into the streets chanting, “There was a time when the Son was not!” The slogan expressed an idea that had become popular: that Christ was a created being. But that idea was opposed by another group of Christians, led by Bishop Alexander of Alexandria and his protégé, Athanasius. They insisted that Christ is eternally divine along with the Father.

This controversy had political ramifications, and eventually spread through the Roman Empire and threatened to fracture the church. What caused this crisis? The teachings of a Libyan priest in Alexandria named Arius.

Arius wasn’t trying to stir division. He thought that the relationship between the Father and Jesus was simple and needed to be freed from overly complicated explanations. Since the age of the apostles, Jesus had always been considered to be divine in some sense. But his precise relationship to the Father had not been settled on yet.

Arius argued that the Son was created before the rest of creation. As Arius put it, “Before he was begotten or created or appointed or established, he did not exist.” Further, Arius believed, the Son is not of one divine substance with the Father. He is rather of a similar substance (homoiousios in Greek) to the Father. The divine qualities of the Son are derivative—contingent, not essential—and given to the Son by the Father.

Arianism caught the attention of Emperor Constantine. Fearing that the church’s discord might fracture the empire, he called the Council of Nicaea (325), attended by 318 bishops, to resolve the situation. After dramatic debates, the majority stood with Alexander and condemned Arianism. (Only two other men were exiled with Arius. Thus, the outcome was virtually unanimous.) The bishops formulated a summary of the Christian faith that used precise wording to denounce Arianism: “We believe . . . in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance [homoousious] with the Father.”

Why the precise wording? Because, as Athanasius argued in On the Incarnation, salvation itself hung in the balance. The Bible’s teaching on Christ’s atonement requires a mediator who is fully God, with the holiness to make a perfect offering for sin, and also fully human, one who truly represents those to be reconciled to God.

As fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus famously put it, “That which was not assumed is not healed, but that which is united to God is saved.” Gregory understood that what we believe about Christ is directly connected to what we believe about salvation.

The orthodox bishops at the council struggled to gain popular approval. In fact, the council caused Arianism to grow more rapidly. It grew so much that Constantine—who was not concerned about fidelity to the strict wording of the Nicene Creed—restored Arius. He required Arius to submit in principle to the Creed. Arius did, but Athanasius, Alexander’s successor, and other bishops believed he was lying.

Athanasius was exiled five times for defending Nicene orthodoxy. In 46 years as bishop, he spent only 17 in Alexandria. But he remained faithful, even though he was up against what seemed like the entire world. Today he is recognized as the foremost defender of Nicene orthodoxy and the most prolific writer of Trinitarian theology in the fourth century.

A few years after Athanasius died, the Cappadocian Fathers—Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus—carried the torch to subdue Arianism and Semi-Arianism at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

How to Identify Heresy

This brief sketch shows that a mature definition of heresy draws on the rich biblical, theological, and historical teachings of Christianity. So we must recognize the various places and levels of theological authority.

Scripture is the highest authority, of course, followed by the great ecumenical creeds (Apostles’ and Nicene), and then by denominational confessions. Those include Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles, Lutheranism’s Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, and Methodism’s Twenty-Five Articles of Religion. Many evangelical organizations use statements of faith to delineate their theological convictions. Creeds, confessions, and statements of faith can help us understand Scripture, but they should never be placed above Scripture.

That said, the creeds in particular are great summaries of biblical truth and are indispensable for pinpointing heresy. Accepted by Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians, the Nicene Creed—which should be called the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, since later debates led to an expansion of Nicaea’s formula at the Council in Constantinople (381)—wonderfully encapsulates the fundamental teachings of historic Christianity. If a believer genuinely accepts the Nicene Creed, they should not be dubbed a heretic. It’s worth asking: “Can they say the Nicene Creed without crossing their fingers?” If yes, they may still be wrong or heterodox on other matters, but we cannot call them heretics.

The creeds are bare-bones structures, the outlines of the sketch. Confessions and statements of faith color in the picture. They tie theology to everyday life and highlight denominational distinctives—how one Christian tradition differs from another. Confessions and statements of faith often define a particular group’s belief on secondary issues such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, predestination, and the end times. They arise when particular theological issues are debated. For example, many evangelical statements of faith include affirmations of the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture. That’s because evangelicals have wanted to distinguish themselves from liberal Christianity, which often denied these teachings.

Today we rarely confront heresy as such, in part because those who adopt a heretical view frequently leave the church when they do so. But heresy is still alive and well. One practical example: The reason we don’t count Jehovah’s Witnesses as fellow Christians is because they espouse Arianism.

Even though heresy is rare, heterodoxy and false teachings are not.

In a pluralistic world, some sub-Christian or extra-biblical teachings—like the Immaculate Conception, that the only appropriate Bible translation is the King James Version, or that the Jewish laws are mandatory for Christians—find their way into otherwise orthodox churches. Most would not count as heresy, but that does not mean we can ignore them.

That said, we are called to confront with love, just as the early church confronted Apollos, patiently guiding people to a fuller understanding of the faith. Even this calls for discernment, because often we’re not dealing with theological error as much as different interpretations of Scripture. In those cases especially, we should eschew the word heresy. And in all cases, we should recall this saying: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things love.”

Ninety-Five Theses (Free Bonus Chapter)

Ninety-Five Theses (Free Bonus Chapter)

Want a free bonus chapter from my book Know the Creeds and Councils? At the bottom of this post, there is link to download a PDF of a chapter on Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses that includes discussion questions and further reading.

Historical Background

If people know only one thing about the Protestant Reformation, it is the famous event when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Wittenberg Chapel in protest against the Catholic Church. Within a few years of this event, the church had splintered into not just the church’s camp or Luther’s camp but also the camps of churches led by theologians of all different stripes.

Luther is known mostly for his teachings about scripture and justification. Regarding scripture, Luther argued that scripture alone (sola scriptura) is our ultimate authority for faith and practice. About justification, Luther taught that we are saved solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s grace and Christ’s merit. We are neither saved by our merits nor declared righteous by our good works. Additionally, we need to fully trust in God to save us from our sins, rather than partly relying on our own self-improvement. 


These teachings were radical departures from the Catholic orthodoxy of Luther’s day. But you might be surprised to learn that the Ninety-Five Theses, even though it was the document that sparked the Reformation, was not about these issues. Instead, Luther objected to the fact that the Catholic Church was offering to sell certificates of forgiveness, and that by doing so, it was substituting a false hope—that forgiveness can be earned or purchased—for the true hope of the gospel—that we receive forgiveness according to the riches of God’s grace.

The Roman Catholic Church claimed that it had been placed in charge of a “treasury of merits” of all of the good deeds that saints had done (not to mention the deeds of Christ, who made the treasury infinitely deep). For those who were trapped by their own sinfulness, the church could write a certificate transferring some of the merits of the saints to the sinner. The catch? These “indulgences” had a price tag.

This much needs to be understood to make sense of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses: the selling of indulgences for full remission of sins intersected perfectly with the intense struggle Martin Luther had experienced regarding salvation and assurance for many years. And it is at this point of collision between one man’s hope in the gospel and the Catholic Church’s denial of that hope that the Ninety-Five Theses can be properly understood.

Content of the Ninety-Five Theses

Luther’s official response to indulgences came in the form of an academic document that he addressed to the local archbishop, who happened to be the same Albert of Mainz who had authorized the campaign. Significantly, Luther penned his grievance—titled “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” but known to posterity as the Ninety-Five Theses—in Latin rather than in the common vernacular. That fact combined with the intended audience and the largely academic tone of the writing indicates that Luther did not write his document for mass consumption. Rather, he intended it to spark a scholarly debate. Regardless, the document was translated into the common Germanic language of Saxony and was reportedly posted on the door of the Schlosskirche (the Castle Church of Wittenberg) on October 31, 1517.

Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses focuses on three main issues: selling forgiveness (via indulgences) to build a cathedral, the pope’s claimed power to distribute forgiveness, and the damage indulgences caused to grieving sinners. That his concern was pastoral (rather than trying to push a private agenda) is apparent from the document. He did not believe (at this point) that indulgences were altogether a bad idea; rather, he believed that they were misleading Christians regarding their spiritual state:

 41. Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.

 As well as their duty to others:

 43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.

 44. Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better. Man does not, however, become better by means of indulgences but is merely freed from penalties. [Notice that Luther is not yet wholly against the theology of indulgences.]

 And even financial well-being:

46. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.

 Luther’s attitude toward the pope in this document is also surprisingly ambivalent. In later years, he called the pope “the Antichrist” and burned his writings, but here his tone is merely cautionary, hoping the pope will come to his senses. For instance, in this passage he appears to be defending the pope against detractors, albeit in a backhanded way:

51. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.

Obviously, since Leo X had begun the indulgences campaign in order to build the basilica, he did not “wish to give of his own money” to Tetzel’s victims. However, Luther phrased his criticism to suggest that the pope might be ignorant of the abuses and at any rate should be given the benefit of the doubt. It provided Leo a graceful exit from the indulgences campaign if he wished to take it.

So what made this document so controversial? Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses hit a nerve in the depths of the authority structure of the medieval church. Luther was calling the pope and those in power to repent—on no authority but the convictions he had gained from Scripture—and urged the leaders of the indulgences movement to direct their gaze to Christ, the only one who is able to pay the penalty due for sin.

Of all the portions of the document, Luther’s closing is perhaps the most memorable for its exhortation to look to Christ rather than to the power of the church:

92. Away, then, with those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Peace, peace,” where in there is no peace.

93. Hail, hail to all those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “The cross, the cross,” where there is no cross.

94. Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells.

95. And let them thus be more confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through a false assurance of peace.

In the years following his initial posting of the Theses, Luther became emboldened in his resolve, strengthening his arguments with Scripture. At the same time, the church became more and more uncomfortable with the radical Luther, and in the following decades, the spark that he made grew into a flame of reformation that spread across Europe. Luther was ordered by the church to recant in 1520 and was eventually exiled in 1521.


Although the Ninety-Five Theses does not explicitly lay out a Protestant theology or agenda, it contains the seeds of the most important beliefs of the movement, especially the priority of understanding and applying the gospel. Luther developed his critique of the Catholic Church out of his struggle with doubt and guilt as well as his pastoral concern for his parishioners. Luther longed for the hope and security that only the gospel can bring, and he was frustrated with the structures that were using Christ to take advantage of people and prevent them from union with God. Furthermore, Luther’s focus on the teaching of the Bible is significant, because it provided the foundation upon which the great doctrines of the Reformation found their origin.

Indeed, Luther developed a robust notion of justification by faith and rejected even the notion of purgatory as unbiblical; he argued that indulgences and even hierarchical penance cannot lead to salvation; and perhaps most notable, he rebelled against the authority of the pope. All of these critiques were driven by Luther’s commitment, above all else, to Christ and the Scriptures that testify about him.

The courage and outspokenness that Luther demonstrated in writing and publishing the Ninety-Five Theses also spread to other influential leaders of the young Protestant Reformation.

Today, the Ninety-Five Theses may stand as the most well-known document from the Reformation era. Luther’s courage and his willingness to confront what he deemed to be clear error is just as important today as it was then. One of the greatest ways in which Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses affect us today—in addition to the wonderful inheritance of the five Reformation solas—is that it calls us to thoroughly examine the inherited practices of the church against the standard set forth in the Scriptures. Luther saw an abuse, was not afraid to address it, and was exiled as a result of his faithfulness to the Bible in the midst of harsh opposition.


For more on Ninety-Five These, download this free bonus chapter from Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils (Zondervan, 2014).

Free Leader’s Guides for Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics

Free Leader’s Guides for Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics

Here are two FREE Leaders’ Guides for Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics.


Many Christians don’t know about the history of their faith, but they want to learn more. That is why I wrote these two books: Know the Heretics and Know the Creeds and Councils.

These accessible overviews walk readers through the most important expressions (and denials!) of the Christian tradition–not with dry focus on dates and places, but with an emphasis on the living traditions of Christian belief and why it matters for our lives today. They are ideal for group uses and study.

Know the Heretics

Know the Heretics

There is a lot of talk about heresy these days. The frequency and volume of accusations suggest that some Christians have lost a sense of the gravity of the word. On the other hand, many believers have little to no familiarity with orthodox doctrine or the historic distortions of it. What’s needed is a strong dose of humility and restraint, and also a clear and informed definition of orthodoxy and heresy. Know the Heretics is an accessible “travel guide” to the key heresies of Christian history.

This book started as a series of blog posts, which are listed here:

Know the Creeds and Councils is the companion book to Know the Heretics.

Know the Creeds and Councils

Know the Creeds and Councils

Know the Creeds and Councils is an accessible and relevant overview of Christianity’s most significant statements of faith. In every generation, the Christian church must interpret and restate its bedrock beliefs, answering the challenges and concerns of the day. This accessible overview walks readers through centuries of creeds, councils, catechisms, and confessions–not with a dry focus on dates and places, but with an emphasis on the living tradition of Christian belief and why it matters for our lives today.

This book started as a series of blog posts, which are listed here:

Know the Heretics is the companion book to Know the Creeds and Councils.

C. F. W. Walther: Applying Law & Gospel

C. F. W. Walther: Applying Law & Gospel

C. F. W. Walther is a household name to some, but an unknown figure to many. He is largely responsible for bringing Lutheranism to the United States. According to theologian Robert Kolb, Walther “shaped his epoch by adapting Luther’s teachings to the needs of nineteenth-century German immigrants on the American frontier.” What is especially unique about Walther is his work in applying Martin Luther’s doctrine of Law and Gospel. The scholar Victor Veith writes, “Perhaps more than any other theologian, C. F. W. Walther applied himself to understanding the application of law and gospel. Indeed, Walther’s exhaustive analysis of this issue was unparalleled in his time and has not been equaled in our era.” Because of Walther’s concern to carry on the Reformation that had begun with Luther, his life and thought deserves attention.

Walther’s Background

Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther was born in 1811 in Saxony, Germany, the eighth of twelve children. Ferdinand, as his family called him, received his initial education from his father, a pastor. While studying theology at Leipzig, Walther spent much time reading Luther’s works and became convinced of confessional Lutheran doctrine. After passing his exams, Ferdinand was ordained as a pastor in 1837.

Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther was born in 1811 in Saxony, Germany, the eighth of twelve children. Ferdinand, as his family called him, received his initial education from his father, a pastor. While studying theology at Leipzig, Walther spent much time reading Luther’s works and became convinced of confessional Lutheran doctrine. After passing his exams, Ferdinand was ordained as a pastor in 1837.

The congregation Walther inherited gave him little hope that the Gospel could be proclaimed effectively in such an environment. The rationalist Christians of his day opposed the orthodox Christian faith, and sermons of the day focused on topics such as “Profitableness of Potato-raising,” “Importance of Genuine Sanitation,” and “Tree-planting a Necessity” instead of the Gospel and grace of Jesus Christ.

In search of greater religious freedom, Walther and a group of Lutheran immigrants set out for the United States in 1838, ultimately settling in Missouri. Walther began to pastor a church in St. Louis, where he served until his death in 1887. Walther and his wife had six children. During his ministry, he served as the president of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, as the first president of Concordia Seminary, and as the head pastor of four Lutheran congregations in St. Louis.

Walther’s Theological Distinctives

Theologically, Walther was an orthodox Lutheran as well as a Pietist. However, he criticized the Pietists for their focus on human experience at the expense of the Word of God. Their focus on works, for Walther, distracted from the Gospel and justification. As an orthodox Lutheran, he worried that the union of the Lutherans and the Reformed in the Kingdom of Prussia was misguided “because it glossed over the errors of Reformed theology.”

Law and Gospel

What Walther is best known for his is persuasive, passionate, and powerful teaching about how to understand the Law and the Gospel. The distinction between Law and Gospel is one to which Luther gave great weight, writing, “Whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.” Walther’s theological significance lay in working out the application of this crucial distinction, and he found at least twenty-one ways Christians and Christian teachers tend to misapply and confuse Law and Gospel.

In Walther’s most influential work, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, he showed how the one word of grace depends on the two words of God—Law and Gospel (alternatively, judgment and love, or threat and promise)—being related and reconciled in the crucifixion of Christ. His first three “theses” on Law and Gospel provide an important foundation for how to read and teach the Bible:

Thesis 1: “The doctrinal contents of the entire Holy Scriptures, both of the Old and the New Testament, are made up of two doctrines differing fundamentally from each other, viz., the Law and the Gospel.”

Thesis 2: “Only he is an orthodox teacher who not only presents all articles of faith in accordance with Scripture, but also rightly distinguishes from each other the Law and the Gospel.”

Thesis 3: “Rightly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel is the most difficult and the highest art of Christians in general and of theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience.”

Walther explains that both Law and Gospel are equally necessary for salvation, but the Law cannot lead us to salvation; it can only prepare us for the Gospel. The Law has nothing to say about grace, but only contains commands and threats, which reveal to us our need for the Gospel. The Gospel, in contrast, offers only grace, peace, and salvation.

The Law tells us what to do, but it does not enable us to obey; the Gospel gives salvation freely and empowers joyful obedience in response. Walther was adamant that no Gospel element should ever be combined with the Law; instead, the Law should be proclaimed first, and then the Gospel should follow. The Law says “Do!” and the Gospel follows and says “Done.” It is also necessary to recognize the context when preaching, because “the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is preached to those who are already in terror on account of their sins, or the Gospel to those who live securely in their sins.”


Walther’s robust doctrine of justification set him apart from the other theologians of his day, as well as many today. Theologian Franz Pieper writes, “After Luther and Chemnitz no other teacher of our church has attested the doctrine of justification so impressively as did Walther.” Walther spoke of justification as the characteristic mark of the Christian religion, and declared that any error in the doctrine of justification necessarily meant an error in every other Christian doctrine. Thus Walther argued, “If anyone would not rightly know and believe this doctrine [justification], it would not do him any good if he knew correctly all other doctrines as, for instance, those of the Holy Trinity, of the person of Christ, and the like.”

The doctrine of justification was the foundation of pastoral ministry for Walther, and he urged preachers to focus on the Gospel, because “the Word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching.” He declared that he would rather the church be filled with uneducated pastors who knew the doctrine of justification well than with eloquent scholars who wavered on justification. For Walther, to assert that faith is anything other than trust in the grace offered by the Gospel would pervert justification.

Carrying Luther’s Legacy

Some worried that Walther merely wanted to return to the scholastic theology of the seventeenth-century Lutherans, but Walther wanted to return to Luther and to historic Lutheranism as set forth in the Book of Concord. For him, Luther was “the man whom God chose as the Moses of his church of the New Covenant, to lead his church, which had fallen into slavery to the Antichrist, out of that slavery. He is the column of smoke and fire of the Word of God, clear and pure as gold as it is.” However, Walther insisted that Luther was not to be idolized, for his accomplishments were to be viewed as God’s accomplishments.

As a pastor, Walther believed that theology was a practical rather than academic discipline at its core and that orthodox belief should always produce living faith.

Along with this conviction came the belief that the Scriptures were central to the revival of the church. Walther believed that a culture in which the Scriptures could flourish had to be created. As such, under his leadership, the church body founded schools, hospitals, churches, and other institutions.

Walther’s Scholarship

Through both preaching and writing Walther communicated his vision to his congregation. He wrote mostly periodical articles in the two journals he started. His scholarly journal was called Lehre und Wehre (1855), and his popular journal was Der Lutheraner (1844). Both journals were distinctly Lutheran and aimed to communicate Luther’s thought and heritage to both scholars and laypersons. His longer works were comprised almost solely of ecclesiological writings.

Because of his admiration for Luther, Walther wanted him also to be read by his church. He spent much time in translating Luther’s works into English, and eventually backed a project for the complete American edition. He also published a guide for reading Luther.

Walther’s most influential work remains The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, which was originally a collection of lectures to seminary students. Kolb argues that Walther’s entire ministry can be summed up in this title. Other noteworthy works by Walther are listed at the end of this post.

Walther’s Legacy                 

C. F. W. Walther remains a figure to be admired. He wanted the church to rediscover the Gospel in the face of a prevailing culture that made it difficult to do so. While he did not produce a major systematic theology text to carry on his legacy, Walther’s emphasis on the distinction between Law and Gospel remains extremely relevant today. As one religious historian writes, “Walther’s influence was especially significant in that he stood almost alone in the nineteenth-century American theological scene as one fully aware of the crucial importance of the problems of Law and Gospel.”

Walther’s Major Writings              

Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)

Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)

Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest, was one of my favorite authors and theologians.  He died last night.

I first read Capon when I was studying for my PhD at Emory.  My advisor, Walt Lowe, turned me on to Capon and assigned him in numerous courses, for which I was his teaching assistant, at Candler School of Theology. Now that I teach my own classes, I assign Capon’s work.

Capon wrote about the radical grace of God in a way that kept me sane while I was deep in academic theological studies.

Here are a list of some of his books. Below are quotes and excerpts.


Quotes & Excerpts

“The cross is a sign of the fact that religion can’t do a thing about the world’s problems.” -Robert Capon


“The church’s job in filling pulpits is to find derelict nobodies who are willing to admit that they’re sinners and mean it.” -Robert Capon


“The name of the game from now on is resurrection, not bookkeeping.” -Robert Capon


“Jesus came to raise the dead. He didn’t come to teach the teachable, improve the improvable, or reform the reformable.” -Robert Capon


“The world is by no means averse to religion. In fact, it is devoted to it with a passion. It will buy any recipe for salvation as long as that formula leaves the responsibility for cooking up salvation firmly in human hands. The world is drowning in religion. It is lying full fathom forty in the cults of spiritual growth, physical health, psychological self-improvement, and ethical probity—not to mention the religions of money, success, upward mobility, sin prevention, and cooking without animal fats. But it is scared out of its wits by any mention of the grace that takes the world home gratis.” –Robert Capon, The Astonished Heart, page 105


“Christianity is not a religion; it is the proclamation of the end of religion. Religion is a human activity dedicated to the job of reconciling God to humanity and humanity to itself. The Gospel, however—the Good News of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is the astonishing announcement that God has done the whole work of reconciliation without a scrap of human assistance. It is the bizarre proclamation that religion is over—period.” – Robert Capon, The Mystery of Christ…and Why We Don’t Get It, page 62


“The reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellarful of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two hundred proof grace—of bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly.  The word of the Gospel—after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps—suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started.  Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale, neither goodness, nor badness, nor the flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.” –Robert Capon


“We are in a war between dullness and astonishment. The most critical issue facing Christians is not abortion, pornography, the disintegration of the family, moral absolutes, MTV, drugs, racism, sexuality, or school prayer. The critical issue today is dullness. We have lost our astonishment. The Good News is no longer good news, it is okay news. Christianity is no longer life changing, it is life enhancing. Jesus doesn’t change people into wild-eyed radicals anymore; He changes them into ‘nice people’.”Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart, page 120


“Marginality, in short, leaves the church free, if it is faithful, to cherish its absurdity; establishment just makes it fall in love all over again with the irrelevant respectability of the world’s wisdom and power.” Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart, page 64


“Just remember that what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the cancer cell, the liver fluke, the killer whale, and the loan shark–that if God is holding all things in being right now, he’s got some explaining to do if he hopes to maintain his reputation as the original Good Guy. Or, more accurately (since God steadfastly refuses to show up and explain anything, except by announcing mysteries and paradoxes), we’ve got a lot of explaining to do if we are to go on thinking of him in terms of his reputation. The point is this: if God seems to be in no hurry to make the problem of evil go away, maybe we shouldn’t be, either. Maybe our compulsion to wash God’s hands for him is a service he doesn’t appreciate. Maybe — all theodicies and nearly all theologians to the contrary — evil is where we meet God. Maybe he isn’t bothered by showing up dirty for his dates with creation. Maybe—just maybe—if we ever solved the problem, we’d have talked ourselves out of a lover.” –Robert Capon, Romance of the Word


“Let me tell you why God made the world. One afternoon, before anything was made, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit sat around in the unity of their Godhead discussing one of the Father’s fixations. From all eternity, it seems, he had had this thing about being. He would keep thinking up all kinds of unnecessary things – new ways of being and new kinds of beings to be. And as they talked, God the Son suddenly said, “Really, this is absolutely great stuff Why don’t 1 go out and mix us up a batch?” And God the Holy Spirit said, “Terrific! I’ll help you.” So they all pitched in, and after supper that night, the Son and the Holy Spirit put on this tremendous show of being for the Father. It was full of water and light and frogs; pine cones kept dropping all over the place, and crazy fish swam around in the wineglasses. There were mushrooms and mastodons, grapes and geese, tornadoes and tigers – and men and women everywhere to taste them, to juggle them, to join them, and to love them. And God the Father looked at the whole wild party and said, “Wonderful! just what I had in mind! Tov! Tov! Tov!” And all God the Son and God the Holy Spirit could think of to say was the same thing: “Tov! Tov! Tov!” So they shouted together “Tov meod!” and they laughed for ages and ages, saying things like how great it was for beings to be, and how clever of the Father to think of the idea, and how kind of the Son to go to all that trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend so much time directing and choreographing And for ever and ever they told old jokes, and the Father and the son drank their wine in unitate Spiritus Sancti, and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia saecula saeculorum, Amen.

It is, I grant you, a crass analogy; but crass analogies are the safest. Everybody knows that God is not three old men throwing olives at each other. Not everyone, I’m afraid, is equally clear that God is not a cosmic force or a principle of being or any other dish of celestial blancmange we might choose to call him. Accordingly, I give you the central truth that creation is the result of a Trinitarian bash, and leave the details of the analogy to sort themselves out as best they can.” –Robert Capon, Romance of the Word


“Let me tell you how God redeemed the world. On the eve of the Big Bang, over single-malt scotch and cigars, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were making a final run-through of their plans for the event. The Son was enthusiastic. ‘I think we’ve nailed it,’ he said to the Father. ‘I’m going to speak everything into being as your Word, and the Spirit here is going to breathe life into it. Then the two of us toss it back to you, and the cosmic party dances itself right into our Trinitarian lap. Elegant! Tov meod! Kala lian! Valde bona, and all that!’

‘I have a problem, though,’ the Spirit says. ‘I’m the one responsible for the PR in all this, especially when it comes to the fail-safe gambit of the Incarnation we’ve planned to cover both creation and redemption. The Son really does make the world, right? But with the human race locked into time and space, it’s going to look as if we haven’t seriously tried to redeem the mess they’ve made until Jesus shows up late in history. The fact that we’ve had the Son in there tidying things up from the beginning is the last thing they’ll think of. How do I convince them that the Incarnation isn’t just an afterthought?’

‘Easy,’ says the Father. ‘Sure, it will look as if the Incarnation of my Word is simply a response to sin. But since all three of us will have been intimately present to everything from square one, all you have to do is give them images that show both creation and redemption going on full force from the start. From before the beginning, in fact, since we’re talking about it right now. What’s the problem with that?’

‘The problem,’ the Spirit explains, ‘is precisely with the images. However many mysterious, right-brain images of the Word’s age-long presence I give them, they’re going to dream up transactional, left-brain ones and view him as something you inserted late in the day. Think of the damage they can do to your reputation as the Father who creates or even to the Son’s, as the one who redeems if they decide to think of you as the coach in a football game and the Son as the quarterback. Since you’re not going to reveal the Word’s Incarnation until some two-thirds of history has gone by, how do I stop them from thinking you kept him in the locker room until the fourth quarter? We three may know he’s been in there right from the first possession, but no one else will. Even your biggest fans are going to be hard put to sell that as brilliant management.’

‘Listen,’ the Father says. ‘I decide what’s brilliant management, not the fans. And as for my reputation, that’s your department, not mine. Besides, haven’t we talked about this practically forever? You know the drill. All through the process of revealing my Son in history, you keep slipping them images of the hiddenness of his Incarnation – of the mystery of the Word’s activity in the world even before you arrange for him to be born of Mary. You’re going to hang images like the Paschal Lamb and the Rock in the Wilderness in their minds. After that, all you’ll have to do is get somebody like Paul to say that those things were presences of Christ before Christ – that the Lamb and the Rock are in fact my Incarnate Word anticipating himself. What’s so hard about that?’

‘Plenty,’ the Spirit answers. ‘I’ve been doing simulations of human thought in my mind. I think we’ve underestimated the effects of cooping people up in four dimensions. Look at it from my point of view. You plunk Jesus into the world at one spot in history, and then you expect me to convince them he’s present as your Word in all of history – before, during, and after Jesus?’

The Son interrupts him. ‘But I really am going to be present. Or to put it their way, I really will have been all along. So I don’t see…’

The Spirit’s patience is wearing thin. ‘Give me a break! Since I’m the one who has to take everything that’s yours and get it across to them, I’m trying to solve your problems here too. Just think about what they’ll do with a Jesus who stays in history for only thirty-three years. Even if I get John to say that he’s the Word who made everything from the beginning, they’ll probably imagine him as a pot of holy soup we delivered too late for a good many of our customers. And after they’ve jumped to the conclusion that the Word wasn’t present to anyone who lived before Jesus, they’ll leap to the even more dreadful notion that nobody who lived after him can have his benefits until their assorted churches get him canned, marketed, and distributed to them.’

The Father tries to break in. ‘But what about the Pentecost party we’ve planned to get the church going? Won’t that…?’

‘I’m sorry,’ the Spirit insists, ‘but I’m afraid Pentecost will be just one more thing for them to misread. Don’t get me wrong: I’m totally on board with both of you. But suppose I do give you the rushing mighty wind and the party hats made out of fire. Even suppose I throw in the mystery of speaking in different languages in order to get the universality of the Son’s work into the picture. They’re still going to think the church is in the world to sell clam chowder to customers who never had it before. I mean, think of the possibilities for ecclesiastical arrogance. Jesus takes away the sins of the world, right? In him, everyone who ever lived gets free forgiveness for whatever went wrong in full, in advance, and all in one cosmic shot, no strings attached. I’m even going to get the church to include ‘one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins’ in the Nicene Creed so they’ll see that the Baptism of Jesus himself does the whole job, even if no one else ever gets baptized. But do you know what they’re going to do with that? They’re going to paint themselves into a corner and say that the unbaptized go to hell or even that sins after Baptism make forgiveness flake off like a bad paint job, and that unless Christians go to confession for a second coat before they die, they’ll go to hell too. Oh, sure. We’ve also agreed on this Reformation business where I convince them that nobody has to do anything to be forgiven except trust the grace that Jesus has already given everybody. But give them a hundred years after that and they’ll manage to turn faith itself into a requirement for grace: no faith, no forgiveness. Out the window again goes the free gift we’ve given them once and for all; and back in comes forgiveness as a deal that’s good only as long as they behave themselves.’

‘But why on earth,’ the Son wonders, ‘would they balk at getting something for nothing like that? Free grace and dying love isn’t enough for them? Would they rather we dealt with them on the basis of accountability?’

The Spirit just keeps pressing his point. ‘I don’t understand it any better than you do; all I know is what my simulations tell me. Human beings aren’t afraid of accountability; they’re crazy about it. If they can’t get credit for themselves or dish out blame to others, they cry “Unfair!” That’s why I pleaded with you to let me include something less subtle in the revelation. Remember? I suggested an image of the Son hiding a box of chocolates in every person’s house: the gift would be there whether they know it or not, like it or not, believe it or not. Maybe then they’d see that their faith doesn’t do anything to get them the chocolates of forgiveness; it simply enables them to enjoy what they already have. If they don’t trust the gift, of course, it won’t mean a thing to them. But the chocolates will always be there. I was even willing to make them miraculous, just to keep the element of mystery in the mix: no matter how many pieces anyone ate, the box would always be full. I still think it would have been a good idea.’

Finally, though, the Father has had enough. ‘I understand your difficulties,’ he says; ‘but after all, somebody’s got to be in charge here. In my mind, we’ve come up with a revelation that does the work of your chocolates without making us look like candy-pushers. The Son and I have every confidence in you. If you want to inspire the odd Christian apologist here or there to come up with images like that, be our guest. As I said, it’s your department. But we’re coming down to the wire here, so let’s call this a wrap. We have a big day tomorrow’.” –Robert Capon, The Fingerprints of God: Tracking the Divine Suspect through a History of Images, pages 1-4

“Gratuitous” Grace

“Gratuitous” Grace

The following is an excerpt from On the Grace of God on John Calvin’s understanding of “gratuitous” grace.

In the Christian tradition, there are many adjectives that have accompanied the word grace: amazing, free, scandalous, surprising, special, inexhaustible, incalculable, wondrous, mysterious, overflow- ing, abundant, irresistible, costly, extravagant, and more. My favorite is from John Calvin—”gratuitous” grace. Gratuitous is the idea of something being unwarranted or uncalled for. Though we yearn des- perately for grace, the beautiful extravagance of God’s love in Christ is utterly uncalled for. Gratuitous. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes: “We make the foundation of faith the gratuitous promise, because in it faith properly consists. . . . Faith begins with the promise, rests in it, and ends in it” (Institutes 3.2.24).

In Calvin’s theology, the knowledge of God the redeemer focuses on the “gratuitous promise” as the main theme of Scripture. The gratuitous promise in Christ is the substance of Scripture. The various terms denoting the gratuitous promise of God exist throughout Calvin’s writings in countless variations: “gratuitous mercy,” “gratuitous favor,” “gratuitous goodness,” “mere good pleasure,” and “gratuitous love” (Institutes 2.7.4; 2.16.2; 2.17.1; 3.21.5; 3.21.7; 3.31.7)  These expressions are also found throughout his commentaries, especially his Commentary on Romans and Commentary on Genesis.

God loves you with gratuitous grace, the only kind there is. God’s grace is unconditioned and unconditional.