Justification

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. 

Indulgences

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.

Relevance

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).

Love-Making

Love-Making

Everyone agrees that love is a good thing. Love is often a very feel-good topic. But if we look at Scripture, we find something disturbing: love is actually a big problem for us humans.

Our Problem with Love

The Bible tells us that God doesn’t just want us to love each other—he actually requires that we love each other:

  • “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Rom. 13:9)
  • “The whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Gal. 5:14)
  • “. . . Love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34)
  • “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16)
  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. . . . [You] must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:44, 48)
  • “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:37–40)

As we read through these verses, it should become apparent that every one of us has failed and does fail to love as God intends and commands us to, with all our hearts.

Jesus has some bad news regarding what naturally comes out of the human heart: evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, false testimony, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly (Matt. 15:17–20; Mark 7:20–22). He concludes, “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:23). In Galatians 5:17–21, Paul follows Jesus’ lead and tells us that inherent within us are works of the flesh like “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.”

After Paul makes his list of sinful desires, he follows it with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The fruit of the Spirit is not inherent in us but worked into us by the Holy Spirit. The natural human heart produces one kind of desires, and the Spirit produces another kind by giving us a new heart. And they are opposed to one another. Thorn bushes do not produce oranges. Weeds do not produce apples. And the human heart does not naturally produce the fruit of the Spirit.

Love is our problem. Moreover, the command to love doesn’t generate in us the ability to fulfill it. We can be told over and over that we ought to love, but being told to do so doesn’t make it possible for us to accomplish it. The command to love actually condemns us, because we all fail.

Freed from Condemnation

God provides the answer for our love problem in Jesus Christ. Through faith we trust in Christ, and we experience grace, reconciliation with God, and forgiveness of sins. Romans 5:1–2 says, “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” Through faith in Christ’s finished work, we are freed from condemnation for our failure to love.

But it gets even better.

Freed to Love

We have been freed to love. When God makes us new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17), he produces in us new passions and desires so love and good works are actually possible (Phil. 2:13).

God has loved us in a way that has given us life. The atoning death of Jesus provides the means by which we enter a relationship in which love is received and expressed. With that as the context of the commands to love, the commands are viewed not as the “ought” of compulsion but the “transformation” of internal constraint. To those who encountered the source of love, the commandment to love can be read with hope and joy, because love is not alien to our experience.

We have been given an overabundance of love.

1 John 4:10 says, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” God’s love for us produces love in us: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God’s gracious, generous love toward us changes our hearts and makes us able to love.

Abundance of Love

The more we bask in God’s affection, the more the reality of God’s acceptance of us seeps into our hearts, the more we might love others as ourselves. This seems to be the logic behind Jesus’ statement: love one another as God has loved you. We have been given an overabundance—a surplus—of love. And out of that love, we can love others out of the overflow of God’s affection for us. God’s love is a love-making love.

The Five Solas of the Reformation

The Five Solas of the Reformation

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century changed Christianity forever. Roused to action by the corruption and abuses they saw in the Roman Catholic church of the time, visionary pastors and leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin spearheaded a movement that transformed Christianity and eventually led to the emergence of the Protestant denominations that exist today.

The Reformers were guided by the conviction that the church of their day had drifted away from the essential, original teachings of Christianity, especially in regard to what it was teaching about salvation—how people can be forgiven of sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and receive eternal life with God. The Reformation sought to re-orient Christianity on the original message of Jesus and the early church.

The Five Solas are five Latin phrases (or slogans) that emerged during the Reformation to summarize the Reformers’ theological convictions about the essentials of Christianity.

The Five Solas are:

  1. Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
  2. Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
  3. Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
  4. Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King.
  5. Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.

Let’s have a brief look at each of these five statements.

SOLA SCRIPTURA

The Scriptures are our ultimate and trustworthy authority for faith and practice. This doesn’t mean that the Bible is the only place where truth is found, but it does mean that everything else we learn about God and his world, and all other authorities, should be interpreted in light of Scripture. The Bible gives us everything we need for our theology.

Every word of the 66 books of the Bible is inspired by God’s Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit also helps us to understand and obey Scripture.

When rightly interpreted, the Bible is about Jesus Christ and his role as God and Savior. Additionally, Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.

SOLA FIDE AND SOLA GRATIA 

We are saved solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s grace and Christ’s merit alone. We are not saved by our merits or declared righteous by our good works. God grants salvation not because of the good things we do, and despite our sin.

As humans, we inherited (from our ancestor Adam) a nature that is enslaved to sin. Because of our nature, we are naturally enemies of God and lovers of evil. We need to be made alive (regenerated) so that we can even have faith in Christ. God graciously chooses to give us new hearts so that we trust in Christ and are saved through faith alone.

God graciously preserves us and keeps us. When we are faithless toward him, he is still faithful.

We can only stand before God by his grace as he mercifully attributes to us the righteousness of Jesus Christ and attributes to him the consequences of our sins. Jesus’ life of perfect righteousness is counted as ours, and our records of sin and failure were counted to Jesus when he died on the cross.

Sola fide and sola gratia express the teaching of Ephesians 2:8-10:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

SOLUS CHRISTUS

God has given the ultimate revelation of himself to us by sending Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Only through God’s gracious self-revelation in Jesus do we come to a saving and transforming knowledge of God.

Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and humanity. Because God is holy and all humans are sinful and sinners, we need a Savior who mediates between us and God. Neither religious rituals nor good works mediate between us and God. There is no other name by which a person can be saved other than the name of Jesus. Jesus intercedes on our behalf, and his sacrificial death alone can atone for sin.

 

SOLI DEO GLORIA

Glory belongs to God alone. God’s glory is the central motivation for salvation, not improving the lives of people—though that is a wonderful by product. God is not a means to an end—he is the means and the end.

The goal of all of life is to give glory to God alone: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). As The Westminster Catechism says, the chief purpose of human life is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

This was originally posted at Christianity.com

How Good Is Good Enough?

How Good Is Good Enough?

“A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Galatians 2:16

How good is good enough to be saved? Are you good enough? This verse answers those questions.

Let’s briefly define “justified.” It’s a very important word. It means “counted righteous” or “to be declared righteous before God,” that is, to enjoy a status of being in a right relationship with God, to be accepted by him.

This verse tells us that it is impossible to be good enough to be considered right with God. Paul’s point is that while the law is good, it is totally inadequate as a means of salvation (Romans 3:19–20). That’s because the law cannot generate what it commands. No law exists that provides the power to follow what it demands. The law does not deliver what it mandates.

The grammar of this verse highlights the difference between the two options: not by doing what the law demands but through faith in Jesus Christ. Negatively, we are incapable of any kind of self-justification. Positively, we stand before God empty-handed, depending on Christ’s righteousness given to us and his death on the cross as our substitute.

BY GRACE ALONE THROUGH FAITH ALONE

The law shows us our sinfulness and our need for Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to deal with our unrighteousness. From Jesus Christ “we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:16). We are saved solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s grace and Christ’s merit alone. We are neither saved by our merits nor declared righteous by our works. We do not deserve grace, or else it wouldn’t be grace. This means that God grants salvation not because of the good things we do, or even our faith—and despite our sin.

“Faith in Jesus Christ” is key to our being right with God. But what is faith? J. Gresham Machen defines it like this:

Faith means not doing something but receiving something; it means not the earning of a reward but the acceptance of a gift. A man can never be said to obtain a thing for himself if he obtains it by faith; indeed to say that he does not obtain it for himself but permits another to obtain it for him. Faith, in other words, is not active but passive; and to say that we are saved by faith is to say that we do not save ourselves but are saved only by the one in whom our faith is reposed; the faith of man presupposes the sovereign grace of God.

This is the ring of liberation in the Christian proclamation. If our salvation is not grace all the way then we will spend our lifetimes wondering if we have done enough to get that total acceptance for which we desperately long: “I said the prayer, but did I say it passionately enough?” “I repented, but was it sincere enough?”

It’s not about how sincere we are. We are justified by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. In justification, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us as the only possible satisfaction of God’s perfect justice. Justification does not rest on any merit in us.

Faith in Christ puts our hope exactly where it should be: in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The Connection Between Halloween & Reformation Day

The Connection Between Halloween & Reformation Day

Why did Martin Luther nail his famous 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door on October 31, 1517? He was confronting two religious observances that promoted false saintliness and exploited people’s fear of judgment and purgatory. There’s a curious connection between Halloween and Reformation Day, and it’s more than just proximity on the calendar.

Halloween

Halloween (October 31) is celebrated by millions each year with costumes and candy. Halloween’s deepest roots are decidedly pagan, despite its Christianized name. Its origin is Celtic and has to do with summer sacrifices to appease Samhain, the lord of death, and evil spirits. Those doing the pagan rituals believed that Samhain sent evil spirits abroad to attack humans, who could escape only by assuming disguises and looking like evil spirits themselves. Christians tried to confront these pagan rites by offering a Christian alternative (All Hallows’ Day) that celebrated the lives of faithful Christian saints on November 1. In medieval England the festival was known as All Hallows, hence the name Halloween (All Hallows’ eve) for the preceding evening.

All Saints’ Day

All Hallows’ Day or All Saints’ Day (November 1) was first celebrated on May 13, 609, when Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to the Virgin Mary. The date was later changed to November 1 by Pope Gregory III, who dedicated a chapel in honor of all saints in the Vatican Basilica. In 837, Pope Gregory IV (827-844) ordered its church-wide observance. Its origin lies earlier in the common commemorations of Christian martyrs. Over time these celebrations came to include not only the martyrs, but all saints. During the Reformation the Protestant churches came to understand “saints” in its New Testament usage as including all believers and reinterpreted the feast of All Saints as a celebration of the unity of the entire Church.

All Souls’ Day

All Souls’ Day or the Day of the Dead is normally celebrated, primarily by Roman Catholics, on November 2. This is a day dedicated to prayer and almsgiving in memory of ancestors who have died. People pray for the souls of the dead, in an effort to hasten their transition from purgatory to heaven by being purged and cleansed from their sins.

Reformation Day

Reformation Day (October 31) commemorates Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. This act triggered the Reformation, as they were immediately translated and distributed across Germany in a matter of weeks. The Protestant Reformation was the rediscovery of the doctrine of justification—salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone—and the protest against the corruption within the Roman Catholic Church. The century before the Reformation was marked by widespread dismay with the venality of the leaders in the Roman Catholic Church and with its false doctrines, biblical illiteracy, superstition, and corruption. Monks, priests, bishops, and popes in Rome taught unbiblical doctrines like the selling of indulgences, the treasury of merit, purgatory, and salvation through good works.

Treasury of Merit

Spiritually earnest people were told to justify themselves by charitable works, pilgrimages, and all kinds of religious performances and devotions. They were encouraged to acquire this “merit,” which was at the disposal of the church, by purchasing certificates of indulgence. This left them wondering if they had done or paid enough to appease God’s righteous anger and escape his judgment. This was the context that prompted Luther’s desire to refocus the church on salvation by grace through faith on account of Christ by imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. To those spiritually oppressed by indulgences and not given assurance of God’s grace, Luther proclaimed free grace to God’s true saints:

    God receives none but those who are forsaken, restores health to none but those who are sick, gives sight to none but the blind, and life to none but the dead. He does not give saintliness to any but sinners, nor wisdom to any but fools. In short: He has mercy on none but the wretched and gives grace to none but those who are in disgrace. Therefore no arrogant saint, or just or wise man can be material for God, neither can he do the work of God, but he remains confined within his own work and makes of himself a fictitious, ostensible, false, and deceitful saint, that is, a hypocrite (Luther W.A. 1.183ff).

Instead of the treasury of merit that was for sale, Luther protested, “The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God” (Thesis 62). In celebration of Reformation Day, you should seriously read all 95 Theses—they’re really good.

Apollinarius: Know Your Heretics

Apollinarius: Know Your Heretics

 

Historical Background

In the years following the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., the church was wrestling with many questions about the person and work of Christ. At Nicaea, the deity of Christ was established as orthodox Christian teaching, but many questions concerning the person of Christ remained. Apollinarius, named the Bishop of Laodicea in 362 A.D., is responsible for Apollinarianism. This view compromises the full humanity of Jesus by suggesting that the eternal logos (Word) replaced the human soul of Jesus and served as the life-giving principle in the body of Christ.

Apollinarius’ View of Jesus

Apollinarius says, “The flesh, being dependent for its motions on some other principle of movement and action…is not of itself a complete living entity, but in order to become one enters into fusion with something else. So it united itself with the heavenly governing principle [the Logos] and was fused with it…Thus out of the moved and the mover was compounded a single living entity—not two, nor one compound of two complete, self-moving principles” (Apollinarius, “Fragment 107”).

J.N.D. Kelly, a prominent scholar of doctrinal history, writes, “The presupposition of this argument is that the divine Word was substituted for the normal human psychology in Christ.” Put differently, the humanity that was assumed in the incarnation was not a complete humanity but lacked a significant component of personhood. Apollinarius believed, then, that Jesus was only partially human.

The Orthodox Response

The teaching of Apollinarius was condemned at Antioch in 378 and 379 and by the Council of Constantinople in 381. The primary defender of theological orthodoxy was Gregory of Nazianzus, a 4th century Eastern theologian and the Archbishop of Constantinople. He saw Apollinarius as compromising the saving work of Jesus: “If anyone has put his trust in him as a man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which he has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole” (“To Cledonius Against Apollinarius”). In other words, if all of Adam was lost and ruined by the Fall, then Christ, the second Adam, must put on all that Adam possessed in order to restore human nature and live the life that Adam failed to live. These issues regarding salvation motivated Gregory to articulate a Christology faithful to the Bible.

Why Does All This Matter?

If Apollinarius is right and the “Word” replaced the human soul of Jesus, we are left wondering how Christ can be fully human. Far from lacking a normal human psychology, the Gospels depict Jesus as being completely human in the way he experienced sorrow, pain, and other genuinely human experiences. Certainly Jesus Christ was fully God, as the council of Nicaea maintained, but he was also fully man. And it was his deity—as well as his humanity—that allowed him to be our perfect substitute, the mediator between God and humanity for us and for our salvation.