Biography Teaser: Martin Luther

The reading of Christian biography seems almost a means of grace. Indeed, if true fellowship is so, this form of fellowship with saints of old must be something of a shadow cousin of a means of grace. In any case, the crumbs that fall here from the Master's table are gladly devoured by his lowly servants.

The following excerpt is from Martin Luther: The Iron Pen, a short biographical sketch of Martin Luther from my Wrath and Grace Biographies series. It may be cliché to call Luther one's favorite Reformer, but it is not so to call him the Reformer. The Reformer is my personal favorite Reformer. The following introduction may betray something of my reasonings. Enjoy!

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As one not entirely unacquainted with the judges, I fancy Luther as the Samson of the Reformers. He knew as well how to throw down his foes as to boast over them in the Lord. His words will speak for themselves. He took up, not the jawbone of a donkey, but the feather of a goose and forged it into an implement of great power, a pen of iron. Ink from this pen continues to bleed into our own day; may it be that many pens continue to spring forth from it. Were a lone preacher equipped by this little volume to thunder the truths of God in the plain speech of the people, I shall be forever grateful unto God. The Lord Jesus Christ is worthy of such unassuming servants in dark hours of great need.

Luther, like Samson, was not a sinless man. Lest I be accused of hagiography, I hasten to remind my readers that this short biography is written in the not unbiblical spirit of Hebrews eleven. I intend to visit Luther’s particular weaknesses in the next volume, Lord willing. For now, let us stand in wonder at what God did five centuries ago.

As we take up the tale of the Protestant Reformation once again, the reader will recall that the winds have wafted the spirit of the martyr John Huss to the paradise of God, while they have scattered the seeds of truth across Bohemia. Years have washed over the Bohemian believers as they await the expected day of deliverance. Wars have raged, blood has been shed, peace has been realized, and all seems to indicate some sort of awakening at the very threshold. The world is hushed and stilled, poised for some great happening. It was now that Martinus Luther was born. “We may say without exaggeration that the Re-formation was embodied in Martin Luther, that it lived in him as in no one else.”[1]

It is with great joy that we come now to what may be termed the sweet stuff. All has led to this. Just as the weary journey makes the sight of the destination that much sweeter, the long sweep of the Dark Ages makes Luther’s appearance as a breath of heavenly-fresh air.

Luther was destined for hardship. He has been compared to the eagle—Huss forecasted him as such—and even his youth bore this likeness:

"Let us mark the eagle and the bird of song, how dissimilar their rearing. The one is to spend its life in the groves, flitting from bough to bough, and enlivening the woods with its melody. Look what a warm nest it lies in; the thick branches cover it, and its dam sits brooding over it. How differently is the eaglet nursed! On yonder ledge, amid the naked crags, open to the lashing rain, and the pelting hail, and the stormy gust, are spread on the bare rock a few twigs. These are the nest of that bird which is to spend its after-life in soaring among the clouds, battling with the winds, and gazing upon the sun… It was thus [Luther] came to know that man lives not to enjoy, but to achieve."[2] 

God seemed to hand-pick the Reformers, much like the apostles, from the working classes of society. Although Luther was raised in a tough, disciplinary home, he was also taught the doctrines of God’s love. “The atmosphere of the family was that of the peasantry: rugged, rough, at times coarse, credulous, and devout.”[3] While the scholastic leaders of the Church sank into sophist niceties and speculations, a form of living religion dwelt on in the homes of the people. Veiled as it was, it was imparted to the Reformers in their childhood homes. While mixed with much false and evil superstition, it is not perhaps untrue that the truths they encountered in their youth “were what Luther and Zwingli and Calvin wove into the Reformation creeds and expanded in Reformation sermons.”[4]

Young Martin was a bright boy, sharp of wits, and the firstborn son of a miner. His father toiled and saved to send his promising son to law school. This would secure him prestige and a somewhat easier situation than his father had enjoyed in life. In this way “it fell to Martin Luder to advance his family’s standing.”[5] His family’s standing was to be greatly advanced, though not in the manner envisioned by the patriarch. In a twist of fate, the son was destined to take up the career of the father, but the heir would be a miner of truth.
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You can find Martin Luther: The Iron Pen and my other biographies at Wrath and Grace.

[1] Thomas M. Lindsay, A History of the Reformation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), 1.193.

[2] James A. Wylie, The History of Protestantism (London: Cassell Petter & Galpin, 1899), 1.232.

[3] Ronald H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1950), 10-11.

[4] Thomas M. Lindsay, Luther and the German Reformation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1900), 14.

[5] R.C. Sproul and Stephen J. Nichols, The Legacy of Luther (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2016), 16.

5 Key Benefits of Attending a Small Church

There is no inherent merit to a being a small church. It could even be the fruit of spiritual atrophy among the members. The pride of being "the only solid church in town" may in fact be the narrowness of legalism and the ingrown hair of introspective obsession rearing their hideous, devouring heads.

And yet, a small church may also be the sign of healthy congregational life and strong doctrinal preaching. There are distinct benefits to attending a church on the smaller side. I think we will even be surprised to find that these benefits will be shared by any truly biblical church (small is, after all, a relative term). The key is intentionality.

It seems to be the day of small churches. Nominal Christians are leaving churches in droves as Christianity is pushed further to the fringes of society. It's not a bad thing. Smaller congregations of heavyweight disciples are beginning to shine forth, as they have throughout history.

1. It's biblical

By small we mean to indicate small enough for accessibility to elders and knowledge of the flock from the pulpit. While this can be probably be done on large scales, it is much better achieved in smaller fellowships. According to the Bible, churches must be of such a size as to allow elders to give an account of the flock. It is insanity that men would want to give an account to the living God for people they don't know on any real spiritual level. In addition to this, it must be admitted that most early churches were probably smaller in number.

2. Fellowship

It's a strange phenomenon that the more people attend a church, the harder it is to get to know any of them. This inverted correspondence tilts in favor of small churches. Smaller fellowships are easier to get plugged into, to get to know people, to pursue meaningful membership, to serve. Knowing all your fellow members by name enables you to pray for them and pursue fellowship with them all, to one degree or another. You benefit from their gifts even as you benefit them. As the flock knows and grows together, corporate discipleship's effect is more readily felt.

3. Accountability

Attending a smaller church means you will get noticed, and you will be pursued. It's much harder to fall through the cracks at a small church. If you begin to isolate yourself your elders and fellow members will be more likely to seek you out. Relationships with other members who are held accountable will form more readily and more accountability will be the fruit. Hands-on discipleship is more easily facilitated at smaller churches.

4. Your presence more heavily felt

Your presence will not only be noted, it will be felt. Your membership will mean more to the people and to the elders. The impact of your weekly presence, to say nothing of your service, will be greatly multiplied. This is perhaps what scares people away from smaller churches because they know if they commit they will be expected to serve! Small churches are no place for lazy Christians.

5. Access to elders

God has appointed elders to shepherd his flock, to administer God's word and sacraments. Attending a smaller church means you can have elders in your life. Are members of larger churches able to spend any time with their elders? These are the men God has equipped to watch over your soul, and a smaller church allows you to have a relationship with them. This also means that the preacher will prepare with you and your struggles in mind. Lord's Day sermons become more exactly God's word to his people, and that is exciting. It means you can pick up the phone and call your elders for counsel and encouragement. They are to be your own personal theologians, and small churches allow this good gift to flourish.

I contend that any local church where these five benefits are possible is indeed "small" enough. But if you're looking for a church on the smaller side, I know of one in Minneapolis.

What is a Reformed Church?

While some would greatly expand and others may somewhat reduce the following characteristics, in general a Reformed local church has these several prominent features:

A Reformed Church Emphasizes the Means of Grace

The means of grace are the God-appointed ways that his saving and sanctifying grace comes to us. They are found in Acts 2:42: "And the disciples devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." These means of grace might be called the raw elements of corporate worship.

The Reformers defined the church as the place where the word of God is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. God's transforming grace clusters about these elements of worship. Reformed churches not only prioritize the biblical means of grace, they conform their public worship exclusively to them. Preaching is central in Reformed churches and flanked by the Lord's Supper, baptism, and public prayer. 

A Reformed Church Emphasizes Preaching the Most 

The pulpit in a Reformed church is placed front and center, for the preaching of God's word is the chief means of grace. God's creative voice goes forth in the opening of his word to his people by the living preacher. Books are good and studies are helpful, but it is in the formal, Lord's Day, public exposition of the Bible that God speaks most clearly to us. 

In fact, preaching is so central to Reformed churches that they believe the preaching of the word of God is the word of God. In other words, the live preaching of God's word is not commentary upon the text but unleashing of the text upon the hearts of present hearers. The Bible was designed by God to be cut by faithful, called expositors who bring the text to bear on his people every Lord's Day. And it is there, at the sacred desk, that we hear God remind us week in and week out that our salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone.

More may be added but in my estimation, these are the marrow elements of Reformed assemblies. If I added anything it would be that Reformed churches are confessional: they hold to a confessional standard of one sort of another (Westminster Standards, Savoy Declaration, 1689 Second London Baptist Confession). Here I have lighted more so upon what a Reformed church looks like.

 

 

What Pastor Luke is Reading: Perelandra

My relationship with reading is a complicated and (so often to me) inexplicable romance. Sometimes, I fly through a book in a sitting (or a week if it's massive); other times I wade through one with the velocity of terrible Wi-Fi. Over time I have found that being in a few books at once helps to give me the variety I need while also helping me finish works.

So, what am I reading right now? About five books: The Doctrine of Justification by James Buchanan, The Birth of the Trinity by Matthew W. Bates, various articles from Thomas Peck's Works, The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill, and Perelandra by C.S. Lewis. I'd like to say a word or two about the last one (fair warning, this post will have a very different flavor than our last few).

Every winter/spring for the last few years I've read C.S. Lewis' space trilogy, of which Perelandra is the second volume. It is, of course, a work of pure fiction. Lewis expressly asserts that it is not an analogy either. It's a sci-fi fantasy but with a surprising amount of spiritual significance. I call it Narnia for grown folks. 

Why fiction?

Most of my reading comes from the sector of hard theological treatises and church history. The first is so often gird up your loins hard work, and the second can be long and wearisome. I have found that sprinkling some non-theological historical reading (like Churchill) and especially some good, good fiction has a hugely refreshing effect on my mind. It somehow takes the pressure off and brings the huge concepts and striking beauty of God and his world home to me in a powerful and irresistible way. It reminds me what reading, real reading, really is all over again (it is exploration, time travel, cosmic venturing...). Reading fiction also helps me to hit the hard stuff with new eyes and hungry heart. 

Non-fiction fiction 

Some scoff at the reading of fantasy works like Perelandra as childish and impractical. After all, are not the peoples and worlds entirely made up? The characters--and God forbid our hearts be knit to them in any way!--are imaginary friends. Perhaps. But one wonders, if our children had "imaginary" Reepicheep and Puddleglum for heroes instead of "real" athletes, actors, and artists, would the real world be a better or worse place? Show me the man who holds Dr. Ransom in high regard and I will show you a man who is an asset to the particular planet he really inhabits (whichever one it may be).

But while this life may not be space travel and ancient wizards (yes, a famous wizard makes his appearance in the trilogy), is this real life not much more epic and important than these tall tales? If reading these stories gives me a greater sense of the majestic weight of life and the great principles and destinies that hang in the balance, then I do not hesitate to call them real, after a fashion. Certainly, in that sense, they are much more solidly practical than the little things we spend our real lives on. In fact, Lewis' third book in the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, is really about as down to earth as it gets.

Perelandra

I know, I haven't told you a thing about Perelandra. It is the tale of an English philologist who gets swept away to another world in our solar system to strive in mythological battle with spiritual evil in high places. And if you're looking for real edifying fiction, I know of no better place to start than with the trilogy, of which Perelandra is the second wonderful installment. There are many mighty books, but this little set has, to me, attained to the three. While my personal favorite is the third volume, I think most will testify that Perelandra was for them the most impactful. It is, if you like, chief of the three.

Is the space trilogy air-tight theologically sound? No. Did C.S. Lewis have questionable beliefs? Most certainly. Was he a real believer? I didn't know the man but I have no reason to doubt it. Is the space trilogy a specimen of sanctified imagination and vast learning made simple and exciting (and hilarious)? Without question. Productions like these remind us that there were once intellectual giants in the land. Do yourself a favor and pick up the set.

Tolle lege!

Key Doctrines of Reformed Theology Part II

Last week we glanced at the foundational doctrines of Reformed Theology, the five solas. Today we will see how Reformed Theology stewards the solas to their most necessary and fruitful conclusions in what are commonly called the doctrines of grace. If salvation is really by grace alone, then it is by grace entirely, from start to finish. The doctrines of grace highlight this biblical fact and don't mince words about it. These doctrines are also known as the ever-maligned but often misunderstood five points of Calvinism.

Total depravity

If salvation is by grace and grace alone, to the glory of God alone, then it forbids us from taking any meritorious part in the matter. The doctrine of total depravity goes further and actually bars such a possibility entirely. We are unable to come to God because we are absolutely unwilling to come to God in our fallen state. By nature, we prefer our sin to God 100% of the time. Our choice is decisive: sin we love, God we hate. This horrific condition requires a radical salvation, one that is by grace and grace alone. (Genesis 6:5; John 3:19-20; Romans 3:9-20)

Unconditional Election

If salvation is by grace and grace alone, then we do nothing whatsoever to attract God's grace to ourselves. Every last trace of human merit has been removed from our salvation. God chooses whom he will save for his own purposes, based nothing at all on the performance of the sinner, for good or evil. When did he choose us? In eternity past! If we have chosen Christ in time and space it is proof that he chose us first, long, long ago. (John 15:16; Romans 9:9-13, 11:6; 2 Timothy 1:9)

Limited Atonement

I, for my part, prefer to call this point particular redemption. It teaches that Jesus was victorious, that his death accomplished its goal. All the particular persons for whom Jesus died will come to him because their sins were totally atoned for on the Tree and in due season God will draw them to him. Not a single drop of Christ's blood was spilled in vain. Their salvation is locked. Jesus wins. (Matthew 1:21; John 10:14-15; Revelation 5:9-10)

Irresistible Grace

Grace by its very nature is irresistible; it is somewhat of a redundancy (though it brings out the real meaning) to add the word irresistable to it. Irresistible grace means that God invincibly drew you to Christ in your conversion. When we were born again Jesus became irresistibly precious to us and we were unable, because we were made eternally unwilling, to say No to him. He is altogether lovely to us! (Psalm 110:3; John 6:44)

Perseverance of the Saints

This last one is the cherry on top of the doctrines of grace, the eternally comforting truth that Jesus will never ever cast out anyone who truly comes to him. All who believe will be preserved in their belief by God's power and will be gloried with Christ on the Last Day. Reformed Theology is a most comforting theology, for it rests God's children safe and sound in the strong arms of the living God who set his love upon them from everlasting to everlasting. (John 10:28-29)

Reformed Theology humbles sinners, shutting them up to the grace of God alone as their only hope. It comforts believers, assuring them that their salvation rests on God and not themselves. If you have come to Christ, he will see you through until the end. Any theology less robust than this is unable to hold you steady in the real storms of life. If your salvation depended upon you in the smallest measure, from the reason why God chose you in eternity past to your persererance until the day of glory, you would be robbed of all real peace here and now. There would be room for doubt. But these biblical doctrines unlock treasures of heavenly comfort for our enjoyment and strength as we press forward. Reformed Theology shows us how very big God really is. And that gives him glory.

Key Doctrines of Reformed Theology Part I

Last week we began a series of blogs on Reformed Theology and we saw that, at its heart, it is a system of doctrine that centers on the glory of God. This week we will begin to see exactly how it does so.

Reformed Theology is thoroughly Protestant and is therefore based on what are called the five solas ("alones") of the Protestant Reformation. These were the battle cry of the Reformers as they cleared the godless overgrowth of darkened centuries and struck the lively path back to biblical Christianity. The five solas are as follows:

Scripture Alone - The Bible and the Bible alone is where God speaks. It is the sole authority in all matters of faith and practice. Rome believed Scripture was authoritative but not Scripture alone; they held that tradition, councils, and popes were also mouthpieces of the Holy Spirit. The Reformers excluded everything apart from Scripture and its right interpretation as God's voice and, therefore, as authoritative. (Isaiah 8:20; 2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Grace Alone - The Bible teaches that sinners are saved by grace and grace alone. Grace is God's condescending mercy and favor bestowed on those who deserve the exact opposite. Grace means salvation is entirely of the Lord and not of ourselves. God initiates and God completes, to the joy of helpless sinners like us. (Romans 11:6; Ephesians 2:8)

Faith Alone - This grace comes to us by faith and faith alone. Rome believed salvation was by faith, but not faith alone. They added works. The Reformers taught that faith alone apprehends God's saving grace. A mustard seed of real trust in Christ saves instantly and completely. (Romans 3:28; Ephesians 2:8)

Christ Alone - This faith is in Christ and Christ alone. Rome believed the object of saving faith was all doctrines taught by the church, that all doctrines were equally necessary for salvation. Scripture teaches that the only object of saving faith is our Lord Jesus Christ and his finished work. It's "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!" to those who know his love. (Acts 16:31; Romans 3:25; Galatians 2:20, 3:1)

The Glory of God Alone - This great salvation results in the glory of God alone. No boasting is left to men. All glory belongs to the God who saved us by himself. Salvation displays his greatness and merciful bounty to hell-deserving sinners through the shed blood of his Son for them. What this mighty doctrine means is that there is none like him. (Romans 4:2, 9:23; Ephesians 3:21)

And so Reformed Theology is founded upon the deeply biblical doctrines of the five solas. Next week we will see how Reformed Theology takes the solas to their most natural and necessary conclusions.

What is Reformed Theology?

In recent years there has been a recovery of Reformed Theology in churches around the globe. While some are familiar with the phrase, others may be wondering, what is Reformed Theology?

Reformed Theology is, first and foremost, theology.

It is richly doctrinal. Deep thoughts of sin and grace, and big ideas of God pervade the preaching and writings of Reformed Theology. It is a highly theological system of thought rooted in the Bible. The Bible reveals who God is, and thus, Biblically rich theology has the goal of knowing God. Christians partake of a living, experiential knowledge of God through his word and prayer. 

Reformed Theology is Reformed.

This means it is rooted in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Reformation was a monumental drive back to the Bible, a large-scale recovery of apostolic Christianity from the corruptions of the Roman Catholic Church. Reformed theology is a nickname for the teachings of the apostles and prophets and of our Lord himself as revealed in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments.

Reformed Theology is about God's glory.

The great theme of the Bible is the glory of God in all things, especially in the salvation of sinners through the person and work of his Son Jesus Christ. God is supreme in creation and he is supreme in redemption; he reigns over all things for the sake of his own renown. He alone is worthy of worship. All things, even the plans of the wicked, will coalesce to God's praise on the Last Day. His purposes are unstoppable. Reformed theology champions this great truth, which is also the confidence and comfort of his people.

In subsequent posts we will look at specific key doctrines of Reformed Theology, great Biblical truths which undergird the preaching and teaching at Redeeming Cross and indeed at all Biblical churches.

Thanksgiving first

"First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all" Romans 1:8

Of first order for Paul was the giving of thanks. I would like to encourage the reader with three observations from the text-

I thank my God. God is to be thanked because he is the giver of all things. Paul recognized that all that proceeded and all that was to follow in the lives of the Roman believers was the gift of God. In particular, Paul was thankful for their faith. It was the treasure he sought. He was so thankful for their faith that he wanted to impart more of it to them and even receive more of it for himself (verses 11-12). All comes from God, and especially the spiritual life of trusting him.

Through Jesus Christ.  Paul's thanksgiving had a Mediator. It was through Christ that Paul offered his thanks before God's throne. Our giving of thanks is sorely imperfect, and even the heartfelt offering of it to God must be mediated through Jesus Christ, who presents it spotless to the Father on our behalf and with great joy. His mention of Jesus Christ also reminds us that the faith he was thankful for came through Christ and his finished work.

For you all. Paul wasn't thankful for faith as an abstract concept floating around out there somewhere; he was thankful for their faith. His deepest gratitude to God centered on people. Today, give thanks to God for the people in your life, and especially for those who trust Jesus. Encourage one another by your faith. And for those who don't believe, show your gratitude for them by urging them to flee the judgment to come and find refuge and life and joy and peace in Jesus Christ today. On all sides, let faith in Christ be the chief dish passed around the table. Now that would be worthy of great thanksgiving.