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Posts Tagged ‘The Gospel’

Having spent considerable time and energy over the last weeks and months reading John Calvin, that great Genevan Reformer, I now have the splendid opportunity to study Martin Luther as well.  And oh what a joy! It’s as if someone should’ve said to me: “If you liked Calvin (for all the right reasons, of course, not the wrong ones) well you’re going to love Luther.” And they would’ve been right of course.

The same theological, hermeneutical, homiletical, and pastoral insight which made Calvin such a dear and shining light to many, is there in its brash and bold (and yet foundational) form in Luther. And is it ever encouraging to read.  Indeed I can think of few things as delightful to the soul. However, enough already… Let’s get to some Luther quotes.  From his “What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels” (1521).

After explaining how some confuse the Gospel as merely referring to the four first books of the New Testament, Luther wrote:

There is, besides, the still worse practice of regarding the gospels and epistles as law books in which is supposed to be taught what we are to do and in which the works of Christ are pictured to us as nothing but examples. Now where these two erroneous notions remain in the heart, there neither the gospels nor the epistles may be read in a profitable or Christian manner, and [people] remain as pagan as ever.

The stout German is obviously off to a good start. But one can leave it to the ‘wild boar’ to run a royal rampage across deception and unbelief. He then defines Gospel per se:

Gospel is and should be nothing else than a discourse or story about Christ, just as happens among men when one writes a book about a king or prince, telling what he did, said, and suffered in his day. Such a story can be told in various ways; one spins it out, and the other is brief. Thus the gospel is and should be nothing else than a chronicle, a story, a narrative about Christ, telling who he is, what he did, said, and suffered–a subject which one describes briefly, another more fully, on this way, another that way.

There you have it. The gospel is a story about Christ.

He then goes on to show that this same gospel is the one we get in the Old Testament as well:

Thus when Isaiah in chapter fifty-three says how Christ should die for us and bear our sins, he has written the pure gospel. And I assure you, if a person fails to grasp this understanding of the gospel, he will never be able to be illuminated in the Scripture nor will he receive the right foundation.

Be sure, moreover, that you do not make Christ into a Moses, as if Christ did nothing more than teach and provide examples as the other saints do, as if the gospel were simply a textbook of teachings or laws. Therefore you should grasp Christ, his words, works, and sufferings, in a twofold manner. First as an example that is presented to you, which you should follow and imitate. As St. Peter says in 1 Peter 4, “Christ suffered for us, thereby leaving us an example.” Thus when you see how he prays, fasts, helps people, and shows the love, so also you should do, both for yourself and for your neighbor. However this is the smallest part of the gospel, on the basis of which it cannot yet even be called gospel. For on this level Christ is of no more help to you than some other saint. His life remains his own and does not as yet contribute anything to you.

In short this mode [of understanding Christ as simply an example] does not make Christians but only hypocrites. You must grasp Christ at a much higher level. Even though this higher level has for a long time been the very best, the preaching of it has been something rare. The chief article and foundation of the gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own. [emphasis mine] – Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2005). 93-95.

Well, I don’t know how one could ever strike any more deftly at the very vitals and heart-beat of unbelief.  This penetrates to the core of all false teaching and apostasy which teaches us not to believe in Christ as everything for our salvation, but rather someone and something just shy of it.  Some thing (no matter how small or seemingly reasonable) must be left outstanding.  And just as surely one believes this then all one’s glorying in Christ and his cross falls faint to the ground.

And what’s more, the human heart, in its pride, ever resists such a free gift from our Gratuitous Benefactor and Heavenly Father. And as much as we might think we can today find evidence to the contrary, there’s nothing we like less than a free handout — and from God, least of all. It restlessly tugs against such an offer of absolute and unconditional grace. And of course our sinful hearts are joined in a distorted chorus by the world and the devil, ever providing a relentless deluge of resistance.

And yet the Gospel truly is good news… the best in the world…in all creation. May God by his mercy grant us ears to hear, and hearts to understand, how great and marvelous his love is toward us. Amen.

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So I’ve been thinking about how the gospel of grace strikes the mind of fallen man as so foreign that it often will sound absurd and foolish.  Even as a Christian, to my own mind, it sometimes sounds absurd and crazy. It is utterly anti-intuitive to our natural selves. One might object and say “this emphasis on the foolishness of the gospel is itself foolishness.” And I would counter with the words of Paul: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1.18).

And yet in Romans 6 we see that God recognizes this weakness of ours and condescends to meet us in our need by inspiring the Apostle Paul to pen these words that are aimed at this very objection — thus to alleviate the potential confusion and vindicate the message from all derision. Calvin comments on this issue:

Throughout this chapter the Apostle proves, that they who imagine that gratuitous righteousness is given us by him, apart from newness of life, shamefully rend Christ asunder: nay, he goes further, and refers to this objection, — that there seems in this case to be an opportunity for the display of grace, if men continued fixed in sin. We indeed know that nothing is more natural than that the flesh should indulge itself under any excuse, and also that Satan should invent all kinds of slander, in order to discredit the doctrine of grace; which to him is by no means difficult. For since everything that is announced concerning Christ seems very paradoxical to human judgment, it ought not to be deemed a new thing, that the flesh, hearing of justification by faith, should so often strike, as it were, against so many stumbling-stones. Let us, however, go on in our course; nor let Christ be suppressed, because he is to many a stone of offense, and a rock of stumbling; for as he is for ruin to the ungodly, so he is to the godly for a resurrection. We ought, at the same time, ever to obviate unreasonable questions, lest the Christian faith should appear to contain anything absurd.
– Calvin’s Commentary on Romans

It seems to me that Paul offers us an example not only of boldly placarding and proclaiming Christ before the eyes and ears of fallen sinners, but also of anticipating and forestalling the certain objections that will arise.  I think we see here a principle of cognition and condescension to both the confusion (of honest folk) and the derision (of dishonest and unbelieving folk) that will inevitably confront the announcement of this greatest news in the world.

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The principal design of preaching the Gospel is, that men may be reconciled to God, and this is accomplished by the unconditional pardon of sins; as Paul also informs us, when he calls the Gospel, on this account, the ministry of reconciliation, (.) Many other things, undoubtedly, are contained in the Gospel, but the principal object which God intends to accomplish by it is, to receive men into favor by not imputing their sins. If, therefore, we wish to show that we are faithful ministers of the Gospel, we must give our most earnest attention to this subject; for the chief point of difference between the Gospel and heathen philosophy lies in this, that the Gospel makes the salvation of men to consist in the forgiveness of sins through free grace. This is the source of the other blessings which God bestows, such as, that God enlightens and regenerates us by his Spirit, that he forms us anew to his image, that he arms us with unshaken firmness against the world and Satan. Thus the whole doctrine of godliness, and the spiritual building of the Church, rests on this foundation, that God, having acquitted us from all sins, adopts us to be his children by free grace.

But it may be asked, since he appoints them to be only the witnesses or heralds of this blessing, and not the authors of it, why does he extol their power in such lofty terms? I reply, he did so in order to confirm their faith. Nothing is of more importance to us, than to be able to believe firmly, that our sins do not come into remembrance before God. Zacharias, in his song, calls it the knowledge of salvation, and, since God employs the testimony of men to prove it, consciences will never yield to it, unless they perceive God himself speaking in their person. Paul accordingly says,

We exhort you to be reconciled to God, as if Christ besought you by us

We now see the reason why Christ employs such magnificent terms, to commend and adorn that ministry which he bestows and enjoins on the Apostles. It is, that believers may be fully convinced, that what they hear concerning the forgiveness of sins is ratified, and may not less highly value the reconciliation which is offered by the voice of men, than if God himself stretched out his hand from heaven. And the Church daily receives the most abundant benefit from this doctrine, when it perceives that her pastors are divinely ordained to be sureties for eternal salvation, and that it must not go to a distance to seek the forgiveness of sins, which is committed to their trust.

Nor ought we to esteem less highly this invaluable treasure, because it is exhibited in earthen vessels; but we have ground of thanksgiving to God, who hath conferred on men so high an honor, as to make them the ambassadors and deputies of God, and of his Son, in declaring the forgiveness of sins. There are fanatics who despise this embassy; but let us know, that, by doing so, they trample under foot the blood of Christ.

– John Calvin Commentary on John 20.23

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In Second Corinthians, Paul writes: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” (5:18)

What is the ‘ministry of reconciliation’? Here Calvin comments on this very thought:

Here we have an illustrious designation of the gospel, as being an embassy for reconciling men to God. It is also a singular dignity of ministers — that they are sent to us by God with this commission, so as to be messengers, and in a manner sureties.  “And as it were pledges of his good will toward us.” This, however, is not said so much for the purpose of commending ministers, as with a view to the consolation of the pious, that as often as they hear the gospel, they may know that God treats with them, and, as it were, stipulates with them as to a return to his grace. Than this blessing what could be more desirable? Let us therefore bear in mind, that this is the main design of the gospel — that whereas we are by nature children of wrath,(,) we may, by the breaking up of the quarrel between God and us, be received by him into favor. Ministers are furnished with this commission, that they may bring us intelligence of so great a benefit, nay more, may assure us of God’s fatherly love towards us. Any other person, it is true, might also be a witness to us of the grace of God, but Paul teaches, that this office is specially intrusted to ministers. When, therefore, a duly ordained minister proclaims in the gospel, that God has been made propitious to us, he is to be listened to just as an ambassador of God, and sustaining, as they speak, a public character, and furnished with rightful authority for assuring us of this.

Paul continues (v.19-20): “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

Calvin sees here a ministry of word (and sacrament, secondarily). But both word and sacrament are intrinsically tied to the gospel. It’s beautiful.

Calvin writes:

Hence the ministers of the Gospel restore us to the favor of God in a right and orderly manner, when they bear testimony to us by means of the Gospel as to the favor of God having been procured for us. Let this testimony be removed, and nothing remains but mere imposture. Beware, then, of placing even the smallest drop of your confidence on any thing apart from the Gospel.

I do not, indeed, deny, that the grace of Christ is applied to us in the sacraments, and that our reconciliation with God is then confirmed in our consciences; but, as the testimony of the Gospel is engraven upon the sacraments, they are not to be judged of separately by themselves, but must be taken in connection with the Gospel, of which they are appendages. In fine, the ministers of the Church are ambassadors, for testifying and proclaiming the benefit ofreconciliation, only on this condition — that they speak from the Gospel, as from an authentic register.

Be reconciled. It is to be observed, that Paul is here addressing himself to believers. He declares, that he brings to them every day this embassy. Christ therefore, did not suffer, merely that he might once expiate our sins, nor was the gospel appointed merely with a view to the pardon of those sins which we committed previously to baptism, but that, as we daily sin, so we might, also, by a daily remission, be received by God into his favor. For this is a continued embassy (“a perpetual embassy and commission”), which must be assiduously sounded forth in the Church, till the end of the world; and the gospel cannot be preached, unless remission of sins is promised.
– Commentaries on 1 & 2 Corinthians

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There’s no getting around it. Invariably and inevitably, in the course of any ideological (or theological) discourse, one will eventually find himself confronted by some form of opposition, and therewith, the potential occasion forcing him to decide either to ‘cross swords’ (as it were) and engage his opponent, or otherwise to stand down and retreat.

Now, it should be a given that most men generally like to fight. It’s part of our fallen nature to enjoy brawling. I believe even the most self-respecting and reserved amongst us is not entirely immune to this inclination.   And yet, on the other hand, many of us would also admit we don’t like conflict.  So get this: we want to fight (sometimes) but also generally don’t like conflict. If that doesn’t make sense to you, that’s okay, it bewilders me as well.

Nevertheless, not all fighting is bad. In fact, there’s a sense in which, as men of God, we indeed should want to fight — given the right reason and right motivation.  Scripture is clear enough in this regard.  But determining, when, where, how and in what cases this fighting should be done is the stuff of our common dilemma.   Indeed, it seems unsurety regarding these  kind of situations can be the cause of considerable consternation amongst those conscientious not to give needless offense and yet convicted not to just stand still and do nothing. So what’s needed is wisdom — biblical, mature, and spiritual discernment to determine when to fight and when to hold one’s peace.

Well, the apostle Paul possessed this kind of wisdom. And  what’s more, he demonstrated it when he confronted his fellow apostle Peter before the whole Antioch assembly:  “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong” (Gal. 2:11).

Now, some might say Paul was wrong to do this since he didn’t first approach Peter individually (Matt. 18:15) and thus avoid a public scandal. And yet, perhaps we shouldn’t jump to any such hasty conclusions.

It seems clear enough to me that when the Gospel is at stake, and therewith, the minds, hearts, and faiths of God’s children, we shouldn’t cavil to the tongues of deception. For under this pretext of peace is the the very demise of the sheep. No, we should stand up like men, and fight.

I’ve been reading through some of John Calvin’s commentaries and found these words particularly riveting.

If Paul had been silent here, his whole doctrine fell; all the edification obtained by his ministry was ruined. It was therefore necessary that he should rise manfully, and fight with courage. This shews us how cautiously we ought to guard against giving way to the opinions of men, lest an immoderate desire to please, or an undue dread of giving offense, should turn us aside from the right path. If this might happen to Peter, how much more easily may it happen to us, if we are not duly careful! – – Commentary on Galatians 2:11

Before them all. This example instructs us, that those who have sinned publicly must be publicly chastised, so far as concerns the Church. The intention is, that their sin may not, by remaining unpunished, form a dangerous example; and Paul elsewhere (1 Timothy 5:20) lays down this rule expressly, to be observed in the case of elders, “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear;” because the station which they hold renders their example more pernicious. – Commentary on Galatians 2:14

It is a cruel kind of mercy which prefers a single man to the whole church. “On one side, I see the flock of God in danger; on the other, I see a wolf “seeking,” like Satan, “whom he may devour.” Ought not my care of the church to swallow up all my thoughts, and lead me to desire that its salvation should be purchased by the destruction of the wolf? And yet I would not wish that a single individual should perish in this way; but my love of the church and my anxiety about her interests carry me away into a sort of ecstasy, so that I can think of nothing else.” With such zeal as this, every true pastor of the church will burn. – Commentary on Galatians 5:12

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John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, goes great lengths to destroy any foundation under the feet of those who would insist on good works (even Spirit-wrought, regenerate, and sanctified works) as playing any part in our justification and right standing before God. He also offers insight as to why this form of legalism so easily offers itself to the minds of sinners like us.

If upon hearing again and again of the free offer of the gospel (the lavish forgiveness of sins, the gratuitous gift of perfect righteousness, and the gracious reconciliation with the Father) one finds his or her heart only more hardened or, as it were, unimpressed, it proves only our need to take recourse in one thing:

We Must Lift Up Our Minds to God’s Judgement Seat that We May Be Firmly Convinced of His Free Justification

1. No one is righteous before God’s judgment seat.

Even though all these things are by shining testimonies shown to be perfectly true [Calvin is referring to his treatise on free justification], still, how necessary they are will not be clear to us until we set before our eyes what ought to be the basis of this whole discussion. First, therefor, this fact should occur to us: that our discourse is concerned with the justice not of a human court but of a heavenly tribunal, lest we measure by our own small measure the integrity of works needed to satisfy the divine judgment. Yet it is amazing with what great rashness and boldness this is commonly defined. Indeed, one can see how there are none who more confidently, and as people say, boisterously chatter over the righteousness of works than they who are monstrously plagued with manifest diseases, or creak with defects beneath the skin. That happens because they do not think about God’s justice, which they would never hold in such derision if they were affected even by the slightest feeling of it. Yet surely it is held of precious little value if it is not recognized as God’s justice and so perfect that nothing can be admitted except what is in every part whole and complete and undefiled by any corruption. Such was never found in man and never will be.

In the shady cloisters of the schools anyone can easily and readily prattle about the value of works in justifying men. But when we come before the presence of God we must put away such amusements! For there we deal with a serous matter, and do not engage in frivolous word battles. To this question, I insist, we must apply our mind if we would profitably inquire concerning true righteousness: How shall we reply to the Heavenly Judge when he calls us to account? Let us envisage for ourselves that Judge, not as our minds naturally imagine him, but as he is depicted for us in Scripture: by whose brightness the stars are darkened [Job 9:5-6]; by whose strength the mountains are melted; by whose wrath the earth is shaken; Whose wisdom catches the wise in their craftiness; beside whose whose purity all things are defiled; whose righteousness not even the angels can bear; who makes not the guilty man innocent; whose vengeance when once kindled penetrates to the depths of hell. Let us behold him, I say, sitting in judgment to examine the deeds of me: Who will stand confident before his throne?
– John Calvin, Institutes, 3.12.1

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In light of the recent debates (in the PCA) over our understanding of the forgiveness of sins (and what that means when we say it), it is helpful to read old guys like Caspar Olevian who helped shape our confessional understanding of Reformed doctrine. Reading through ‘Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant‘ I come to what he calls the “forgiveness of sins” (remissio peccatorum). And how does he define it but in terms of justification. He calls it “the greatest question in the entire world” (p. 148). What question?

That is, our righteousness before God, that Christ gave himself for our unrighteousness…. Why did he rescue us? Not because of our merit, but of his grace. This is our consolation, that the Gospel is an infallible testimony to us, that God is not only our creator, but also our Father… (p 148)

It is the greatest question in the world because it is the heart of the Gospel of Christ. Why else is the ministry the gospel (and particularly the preaching thereof) so vitally and urgently important? Olevian comments on Romans 1:16 “The Gospel is the Power of God unto salvation to all who believe:

We speak about the purpose for which God instituted the ministry of the gospel. The purpose is that the Lord might powerfully lead to salvation those who believe, sealing in their hearts the gracious remission of sins and renewing the heart into his image and beginning in them eternal life. (p. 148)

So we see here the “remission of sins” is ‘sealed’ to the believer — as is the ‘renewal’ of the heart. Both (justification and sanctification) come as a fruit of the Gospel and are freely given to us by God, in Jesus Christ, by the work of the Spirit

And what’s more, this gospel must be preached to unbelievers and believers alike: for the conversion of the former, and the strengthening and of the latter. But this “benefit” (which we should read as including forgiveness of sins), as R. Scott Clark points out, “is restricted to those who believe, i.e. those ‘predestined by God’.” (p. 149)

Olevian calls this Gospel the “principal doctrine” of the Scriptures.  And what is this doctrine? “…how sin, the wrath of God, and eternal death, are removed…” He writes, “…the principal life-giving doctrine, by the outpouring of the Spirit of God was, is, and shall be, the promise of the Gospel. (p. 148)

Furthermore, as far as our justification is concerned, Olevian sees this gospel as set in opposition to the law. But he makes clear that this doesn’t mean the gospel wasn’t present in the Old Testament times as well:

Thus the Holy Spirit constantly affirms throughout Paul that the doctrine of the gospel about the forgiveness of sins and eternal life given freely for the sake of the Son to those who believe, is not in any way new. But from the beginning of the world Christ was promised with his gospel. In order that this might be understood the distinction between law and Gospel must be considered. (p. 150)

So we see here that for Olivian, the gospel was about the forgiveness of sins through the justifying work Jesus Christ imputed by faith unto the believer. And, to further stress this point, it wasn’t to the unbeliever that these things were given — but to “those who believe”. Forgiveness and justification go together. And with them come regeneration, sanctification, and ultimetely glorification.

And, brothers and sisters, this is why the Gospel is so awesome (for lack of a better term).  Just as surely as you know (and are convinced) that you are a sinner and have sin in you; and just as surely as you know you’re going to eventually die because of this; you can also be just as assured that Christ is in you; and because of that fact you are also righteous; just as assured that you have everlasting life in you and that will never perish but will surely be raised from the dead. Just as sure! Think about that. This is definitely good news — the best in the world! And it is for all who believe.

And finally, in view of the recent controversies (great and small, near and abroad) over the nature of the Gospel, it’s helpful to read someone like Olivian who tells us that these kind of difficulties aren’t new. They will always follow the church wherever she goes. Why? Because in this world, the powers of darkness and the principalities and rulers of the air won’t stand for the gospel to be proclaimed among the nations. In fact they’re straining all their efforts (whether by schism, heresy, or persecution) to thwart this very process. But should that discourage us? Well, it didn’t disuade men like Olevian.  In his commentary on Romans he would write: “The world…claims I have asserted a new doctrine, but the Gospel is not new.” (p. 147)

May we, too, live with that conviction.

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