Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Something else that Martin said

Luther and the 95 theses?

Last time we saw how Martin Luther taught that self-knowledge is essential to the proper worship of God. He then went on to show that we need to know about God’s ‘character’ in order to sustain the life of faith.

I would also point out not only how these things are true…..but also how godly, reverent and necessary it is to know them. For where they are not known, there can be no faith, nor any worship of God. To lack this knowledge is really to be ignorant of God  – and salvation is notoriously incompatible with such ignorance. For if you hesitate to believe, or are too proud to acknowledge, that God foreknows and wills all things, not contingently, but necessarily and immutably, how can you believe, trust and rely on His promises? When He makes promises, you ought be out of doubt that He knows, and can and will perform what He promises; otherwise, you will be accounting Him neither true nor faithful, which is unbelief, and the height of irreverence, and a denial of the most high God! And how can you be thus sure and certain, unless you know that certainly, infallibly, immutably and necessarily, He knows, wills and will perform what he promises? Not only should we be sure that God wills, and will execute His will, necessarily and immutably ; we should glory in the fact, as Paul does in Romans 3 – ‘Let God be true, but every man a liar (v.4) and again, Not that the word of God has failed (Rom. 9.6),  and in another place, ‘The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, the Lord knoweth them that are his’. (2 Tim.2.19) In Tit.1 he says: ‘Which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began’ (v.2) And  Heb. 11 says ‘He that cometh, must believe that God is, and that he is a rewarder of them that hope in him (v.6). (83-4) 

The phrase ‘knowing God’ is currently used glibly and sentimentally, as if God is a creation of imaginations.  We can rely on God’s promises because God is immutable, unchanging. And not otherwise.  If we know God, this is the God we know.If God is changeful as we are, he cannot function as the ‘rock’, and we would be in the business of anticipating what mood he will be in tomorrow, and what his plans are for the day. That God foreknows all things;  that he is omniscient,  and is immutable, are fundamental features, of who God is, features without which he could not be God.

We may knowing that knowing God is having  the sort of relationship with him that we may have with some other people. We know some people who, perhaps, we would prefer not to know. Is God like this? Or is he a projection of our fantasies, like something out of Tolkein or J.K.Rowling? Luther is telling us that the character of God is fixed, and that this character should control our worship, our hopes and fears and our obedience.  Fundamental to our religion is not whether  we know God but  whether  this God knows us.  And whether or not  we enjoy the fruits of his promises of grace and salvation.

We are often told that God’s love is unconditional, but what Luther tells us means that we should be careful on that point. If we are not careful the attractions of unconditionality will sweep us away. If no conditions, anything goes. You can see that unconditionality appeals to the temper of the ages. Unconditionality, no responsibility? If anything goes, then anything goes with regard to God. But knowledge inevitably conditions.  Luther  insists that our relationship with God is shot through with conditions. There are conditions in our relationship with him. For example, if we are ignorant of who God is and what he does and has done then our condition will be that we shall not begin to know how to approach him.

The doctrine of God is often rubbished as being abstract and ‘theological’ (as it is, naturally.) Whereas our knowing him is personal and intimate. Well, we must be careful. His omniscience or his immutability are not to be thought of as abstractions, the playthings of theologians,  but as divine powers or perfections. Of course he has these powers necessarily or essentially. If he lacked any of them he would not be God. It is to be hoped that it is this God we know when we affirm that we know God.

And so we ask the same question as in the earlier post. Do our preachers tell us such things? . Or are all sorts of other things more ‘relevant’? To neglect such things is not to teach them or to take them for granted. It is to bless our ignorance.

Luther again…….

If, then, we are taught and believe that we ought to be ignorant of the necessary foreknowledge of God and the necessity of events, Christian faith is utterly destroyed, and the promises of God and the whole gospel fall to the ground completely; for the Christian’s chief and only comfort in every adversity lies in knowing that God does not lie, but brings all things to pass immutably, and that His will cannot be resisted, altered or impeded.  (84)

Heard any sermons on these themes, on the object of Christian faith, and how that who God is the solution of many of the  setbacks we have as a Christian? Heard one sermon in 2018 on such a theme? Without the knowledge of God our heads will be filled with the character and goals of our culture, and be filled with fear and stress?

‘Whoever draws near to God must believe that he exists, and that he rewards those who seek him’ (Heb. 11.6) 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Going to church with Martin

Martin Luther (1483- 1548) 

I came across this passage from Luther not long ago:

So it is not irreligious, idle, or superfluous, but in the highest degree  wholesome and necessary, for a Christian to know whether or not his will has anything to do in matters  pertaining to salvation. `Indeed, let me tell you, this is the hinge on which our discussion turns, the crucial issue between us; our aim is, simply, to investigate what ability ‘free will’ has, in what respect it is the subject of Divine action and how it stands related to the grace of God.…..For if I am ignorant of the nature, extent and limits of what I can and must do with reference to God, I shall be equally ignorant and uncertain of the nature, extent and limits what God can and will do in me…

By free will here is not included the question of whether we are robots or puppets . Luther and Erasmus agree at least in this: neither thinks we are robots or puppets. Rather, it is about the moral and spiritual condition of our wills, and  about  the rather different attitude to the human will disclosed in Scripture than we entertain of our own wills.  [Since being brought up short by this passage I have idly wondered if in churches of the Reformation in these days, in preaching and in the construction of services of worship, this theme is given its due, or whether it is covered up. When did you last hear a sermon on the human will? Me? The same.]

Luther’s response to Erasmus is to argue that, if we cover up the questions,  in what respect our wills are subject  of divine action and  stand related to the grace of God,  we shall go radically astray. In fact if we cover these matters up it is rather more serious than that: he says that we shall be ‘no Christian and the Christian’s chief foe'. We need proper biblical statements (‘assertions’ is Luther's word) about ourselves, and then we shall have appropriate expectations of ourselves, and of God. Like Calvin, Luther believed that the knowledge of God and ourselves are interrelated.


Are we going to  the supermarket? Cash? A card? Good. Thus armed, we toddle off. What was it for? Soapflakes? Ham? Eggs? Not a problem, as they say at the till. Perfect. Let’s say that that in these circumstances we are fitted to go to the premarket.

What corresponds to being fitted when we go to church to hear the gospel?  What fits us? When are we ready? We know where to go. We don’t need any  money. What else? Luther would ask us, have you forgotten something? What about yourself?

In some  respects church  is a deceptive.  An ordinary  building, ordinary people. In these respects, like the supermarket, the holiday venue, the concert, the school. But God is present in his church. Does that make a difference? Certainly. As we enter church, we are in a uniquely serious place. Are we ready for what can follow?

We are used these days to coming to church just as we are. We are casual, relaxed. It’s like visiting the places we have already mentioned. We take our seats, see our friends, and so on. But as we wait for the service to begin, are we fitted for what is to come?


That sort of question, 'Are we fitted?' is scary for some, unsettling. Fitted for what is to follow? Don’t we come just as we are to a Christian church? Isn’t this sort of question legalistic? Isn’t everything unconditional here?

In the passage from Luther that we had to start with, he continues:

….[I}f I am ignorant of God’s works and power, I am ignorant of God himself; and if I do not know God, I cannot worship, praise, give thanks or serve Him, for I do not know how much I should attribute to myself and how much to God .  We need, therefore, to  have in mind a clear-cut distinction between God’s power and ours, and his work and ours, if we would live a godly life. (78)

Knowing God is first of all knowing what his power is.

For Luther grace is unconditional, but coming to church isn’t a matter of being relaxed and easy. Coming to church is a matter of first getting prepared and then of being prepared. Not of course by doing things that undermine receiving  the grace of God, but by doing things – specifically, by knowing things – that prepare us for receiving his grace.

For there are barriers in the way of such preparation,  barriers kept up by the working of own sinful nature. So Luther’s concern is to know about free will, or rather about our lack of free will. Otherwise if we are blithely ignorant we shall not know what we need and how to receive it.

Have you usually come to church  thinking that things are OK? Or that they can soon be OK once I have sung a hymn or two? Have you forgotten, or perhaps have never realised,  that we  ourselves resist and distort the offer of God’s free grace? And that we can’t get ourselves right, because our wills are in bondage to sin, and that we cannot get right automatically,  just by coming to church. The grace God  which frees  us to come to Christ, must come from God.  And that our innate self-righteousness that has erected barriers to  this  only God can deal with? We must prepare ourselves for the necessary changes - our feeling of helplessness and the need for repentance - will to begin with be decidedly uncomfortable. Church is unique because there and only there we need strength that we do not have. When we realise this we are on the way to being fitted.

So it is also a fallacy to think that because grace is free, not earned but given, everything about our relation to  the Lord God of all grace is free and easy as well. Is God so good that his goodness may be taken for granted?


Luther’s differences with Erasmus’s view, that it is safe to be ignorant of the spiritual bondage of our wills and how it leaves us,  is not just an academic matter. Christianity is not simply a religion of maintaining a cultural tradition, of reciting general facts about  Jesus and the resurrection. Or about attending church to listen and to sing ‘in community’.  If we are not fitted it is a personal, existential, factor. How otherwise than by coming to know God and ourselves can a person, coming into church, be ‘convicted by all…called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you’. (1 Cor. 14. 24-5)

*The passage from Luther is on p.78 of the Packer and Johnston edition of his The Bondage of the Will.
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Thursday, June 01, 2017

BO and 2K

I have not yet read The Benedict Option. But I have been exposed to quite a bit of what Rod Dreher (who is Greek Orthodox) has to say in the book, which has  been foreshadowed in his very readable and informative blog. He has boundless energy and often good judgment in assessing political and social questions. Above all he is concerned with the survival of the Christian faith and Christian culture alive in the current American climate. He writes against the background of the sudden disappearance of ‘Christian America’ and the withering of the assumption that with the right appointments in the Supreme Court, and the electoral success of the Republican Party, the safety and prosperity of the Christian Church in America would be assured.  Not so, as we clearly see. See in the US and (with the corresponding changes), and see in the UK and in Western Europe more generally.

The link with St. Benedict and the monastic life with Dreher’s proposals of what to do  is a bit misleading, I think. It suggests (despite protestations to the contrary) to Reformed Protestants  the formation of groups who flee to the wilderness, and who set up a monastery, or similar, devoted to the liturgy of the Church and to works of charity  But I think that the substance, or the centre of gravity, of the BO is rather different. This is not an argument to flee from all that is anti-Christian. Dreher’s recommendation is not this. He is concerned with the Christian family, with the education of the young, with the inter-generational support of the young and the fear of being lost or at best marginalized. Particularly he is concerned with the induction of the rising generation in the traditions and identity of the church,  and of being a Christian. And to weigh these of things against a manner of life that will currently and forseeably leads to Christian compromise.

But there will be no advice from Dreher  to instruct one’s Benedict group in 2K and its implications, for he adopts a more relaxed view to church traditions. After all, his is a reaction to a situation in which Christianisation of society is declining. It is an exercise in re-christianisation.

Take for example the issue of education. Forty or sixty years ago the state system could be relied on to uphold a general moral framework, regarding behavior, language and sexual morality. So that to seek Christian education for one’s children by attaching them to a Christian school was regarded by the education by the state system as over-protection. The simple argument was ‘If sooner or later children grow up and have to take their place in the wider world, the sooner they meet such knocks as they’ll receive when they grow up the better’. The state school was regarded as a microcosm of wider society. Knocks received at school foreshadowed the wider knocks of life. We did not realize that what was then regarded as normality, permanence, was rather fragile and rose-tinted. ‘Normality’ was in fact the last waltz of Victorian and Edwardian social mores, kept in place by legislation. Remove that legislation (as it is now largely removed) and it lost its support in the new generations. What was change to the older was normality to the newer. One of the features of modern western societies hastening change is how they have come to identify morality with legality.

If it is self-consistent, 2K takes a different generational approach than this. The presence of two kingdoms is a fundamental teaching of Jesus, not a political re-positioning for tactical advantage. The Benedict Option does not recognize it as mandatory. In Christianity there is always the kingdom of God and of his Christ, and the kingdom of this world. In not recognizing this the BO was making a serious error.

It is not that the phrase ‘the kingdom of God’ is a woolly metaphor for which by alliances with kings and emperors, with the ‘elites’ as we now talk, the church can ‘Christianise’ politics and so protect its own identity, and secure its flourishing, is a serious theological error. Christ refers to ‘his kingdom’ as having spiritual, ethical and political consequences, and it is defined or characterised without any positive references to the kingdoms of this world.

A glance at data in the NT shows that the kingdom of God, or of Christ, is closely integrated into the work of Christ for us……It is the subject matter of his teaching, and of umpteen of his parables, in which the growth of the kingdom - secret, inexorable -  is emphasized, and its sharp contrast with the kingdoms of this world is clearly defined.  It has a manifesto, but not one such matters as housing, or social care, or Brexit, or the cost of domestic electricity. Not even policies on education. For it is a kingdom that is not of his world, ‘else would my servants fight’, or drum up electoral support, or identify it with certain political or social initiatives, or a foreign policy for the Middle East.

Its central soteriological significance can be seen in texts such as Luke 7.28, Christ’s assertion that whoever is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist. The kingdom is a dispensational matter. Or ‘For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.' (Rom.14.17) Glossing that, we might say that the kingdom of God has not to do with social policy of any kind, particularly, (in this instance) with dietary regimes. Being obese or skinny is not a matter of the kingdom. Or how about ‘He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son’? (Col.1.13). Being in the kingdom is the result of the enlightening and vivifying work of the Father. Or, ‘Therefore, brothers,  be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fail. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’. (2 Pet. 1.10-11) The qualities referred to are the various virtues outlined earlier in the chapter.

What such data underline in the reference to 2K, is  that  there is a serious equivocation of ‘kingdom’ as between the this-worldly kingdom and other-worldly kingdom. A person with a British and a Swedish passport (say) may be said to be a member of two kingdoms, but this is not a case of 2K. Such a kingdom may be a member of the United Nations, but Christ’s kingdom can never be. How we relate to a decaying culture and society is a matter of the individual Christian and the family. You may think that the Benedict Option is for you and your house. Others may be able to make a career in Caesar’s household, or as a slave, or as tentmakers, (to give New Testament options). Let everyone be fully persuaded in his own mind.