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Bible

The Truth of Apostolic Succession

Posted by M.Ferris on

Does the Bible have anything to say about apostolic succession?

It does, in fact, but in a different way than what some teach or believe regarding the term. In what is likely his last epistle, Paul writes to Timothy “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim. 2:4.) There is succession, but of the gospel itself and of the body of doctrine taught by the apostles. The power and authority of this message do not come from ordination or office, but that the message is the gospel of God. Mark Dever writes, “The church is apostolic, and is to be apostolic because it is founded on and is faithful to the Word of God given through the apostles. From the apostles until the present day, the gospel that they preached has been handed down. There has been a succession of apostolic teaching based on the Word of God.”[1]

In every age, the gospel comes under siege from various fronts. In the post-apostolic era, some attacked the identity of the Lord Jesus as the eternal Son of God. The testimony of Scripture is that Jesus descends from David, according to the flesh, but also that he is Immanuel – God with us. This mystery of godliness – God manifest in the flesh, is a necessary part of the good deposit to pass on to the next generation.

Later, the idea that salvation is found in the Church rather than in the person of Christ undermined the truth of the gospel. In this same epistle, Paul has written that he knows whom he has believed, not what. Salvation is vested in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, not in the Bride of Christ. These are but a couple of examples of how the gospel comes under siege, and often by those who claim to adhere to it.

In other words, threats to the gospel very often come from those who ought to know better. The gospel, if personified, could well say, “I was wounded in the house of my friends.”

It is imperative, then, that those who know the gospel and love the gospel, be about transmitting the gospel to those who will handle it with the care and reverence it requires. Paul counsels Timothy to pass on the good deposit he received. He should carefully and faithfully teach and instruct those of the next generation. Why is this essential? The current dangers to the gospel are two-fold. The first is a focus on the relevance of the gospel itself. Several years ago, I heard a youth pastor say that the number one thing he is pressured to be is relevant. This thinking assumes that the gospel needs some modification or some adjustment before it becomes relevant. But the message of mankind’s ruin and alienation from God, and the gospel as the power of God could scarcely be more relevant. We are the ones who need change, not the gospel. Teaching doctrine clearly will demonstrate how utterly relevant the gospel is for every age.

The second danger so prevalent now is the politicization of the gospel. The gospel becomes subservient to a program of social action, and in its crassest form, of achieving legislative goals. These things may or may accord with the New Testament, but they are temporal goals, rather than eternal. The goal of conformity to Christ may well be undermined by such concerns. To transliterate the word gospel from the original gives “evangel.” Evangelicals, then, are those who hold to the gospel. When evangelical comes instead to mean a voting block, it represents a failure to transmit the message, a failure to guard the good deposit. If we make the gospel about power and authority in this world, we have failed to adhere to the apostolic message.

Those who are in a position to teach, to pass on (and there are few who aren’t in some way able to teach others), bear a responsibility to teach sound doctrine, which is all the relevance anyone needs. This is the real succession that is apostolic: the faithful proclamation of God’s truth.

 

[1] Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville, B&H Publishing Group, 2012), p. 18-19.

Catholicism/Reformation

Is Doctrine a Matter of the “Wisdom of the Crowd?”

Posted by M.Ferris on

The recent quincentennial of the Reformation brought a passel of celebration within Protestantism. For the most part, this has been a reaffirmation that whatever else he failed to reform, Luther’s recovery of justification by faith alone a thing to be cherished.  Even Pope Francis, speaking of Luther’s view of justification by faith alone said, “On this point, which is very important, he did not err.”[1]

But as the Twitterati were rejoicing over these Reformation truths, not all agreed. Some still view the Reformation not only as a mistake but as innovation, the introduction of new doctrine previously unknown and not held by any believers. In the midst of such a conversation, someone made this statement on social media:

“Please point me to one Christian community in the first millennium that has salient Protestant beliefs (none exist).”

There are a couple of assumptions behind this statement, and they are worth examining. These are as follows:

  1. No one held to salient Protestant beliefs before the Reformation.
  2. For a belief to be valid, one must demonstrate that some early community of believers held the belief.

I’ll take these in reverse order.

A demonstrable community holding to a truth is a kind of “Wisdom of the Crowd” for what constitutes the body of doctrines Christians should believe. While it’s not called this in Roman Catholic teaching, the elements of it are there in the sensus fidelium, or sense of the faithful. When the whole body of the faithful adheres to a teaching, this gives it validity. But this is manifestly false on a number of counts. It is an inversion of authority. It represents the people themselves dictating what is right and true, rather than the Scriptures being the source of truth.  The Catechism may claim “The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it to daily life”[2], but the many instances where the people were wrong show the fallacy of this. There was a time, as Jerome wrote, “The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian.”[3] Arianism held sway, and had many adherents. One could point to communities that believed in Arianism, but it is heretical doctrine – despite how many may have held to it. Some may answer that there was a course correction. Arianism was vanquished and the orthodox doctrine of Christ prevailed. I would argue the same thing about justification by faith. The Reformation represented a course correction, and the orthodox doctrine of justification prevailed. The Pope himself admitted as much.

Moreover, the “sense of the faithful” does not prevail today either.

A 2005 Gallup poll of Catholics found only 41.9% of respondents agreed that the teachings of the Vatican are very important. Some 42% disagreed that Catholicism contains a greater share of truth than other religions. When asked who should have the final say as to a divorced Catholic remarrying without getting an annulment, 41.8% replied that this should be up to the individual, rather than church leaders. And 22.5% said that a person can be a good Catholic without believing that Jesus rose from the dead.[4]

In February 2008, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University conducted a survey of US Catholics to ask them about all aspects of their faith. About six in ten Catholics (57%) agree that Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. The remaining 43% said the bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but that he is not truly present.[5]  Both of these surveys demonstrate that the faithful are not unfailingly holding to what the hierarchy says they must.

The other assumption behind my interlocutor’s statement is that for a belief to be right it must be ancient, that is, it must be traceable to the first millennium. As it’s been put in the vernacular, “What’s true isn’t new, and what’s new isn’t true.” I concur with that, but with some distinctions. I would say the first millennium is far too late. The body of apostolic doctrine was finished with the apostles. Sub-apostolic writings have no Scriptural authority. They may be interesting history, but they carry no authority. When that standard is applied to many later doctrines, they fail the test. Things such as the Treasury of Merit, Papal Infallibility, the assumption of Mary were all unknown in the first millennium of Christian history. On the latter, Father Joseph Mitros says, “Thus the definition of the Assumption of Mary has created particular difficulties (to take only one example), since neither scientific exegesis nor a history of the first centuries of the Church has been able to discover even traces of this doctrine.”[6]

This is where the argument about the origin of doctrine cuts both ways. The Church often says that later doctrines were there in nascent form very early on. But even were we to say that were true, it surely does not constitute these things being held as salient beliefs by a Christian community. In fact, as Father Mitros points out, it isn’t the case that this doctrine was found at all in the earliest centuries of Church history.

When it comes to something such as justification by faith, would early examples of the teaching be enough to establish it? Nathan Busenitz’s recent book, Long Before Luther, contains a plethora of such examples.

  • Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 130-202) “The Lord, therefore was not unknown to Abraham, whose day he desired to see; nor, again, was the Lord’s Father, for he had learned from the Word of the Lord, and believed Him; wherefore it was accounted to him by the Lord for righteousness. For faith towards God justifies a man.”[7]
  • Marius Victorinus (ca. 290-364) “Only faith [sola fide] in Christ is salvation for us.”[8]
  • Hilary of Potiers (ca. 300-368) “Wages cannot be considered as a gift, because they are due to work, but God has given free grace to all men by the justification of faith.”[9]
  • Ambrosiaster (4th Century) “They are justified freely because, while doing nothing or providing any repayment, they are justified by faith alone as a gift of God.”[10]
  • Jerome () “We are saved by grace, rather than by works, for we can give God nothing in return for what he has bestowed on us.”[11]

These are a handful of the many, but it demonstrates justification by faith was no novelty of the Reformation. That the theological barnacles needed to be scrubbed away from the ship of faith is without question, but that is a different thing than saying a teaching is brand new.

What then, is the difference between this “Wisdom of the Crowd” stance, and how Protestants understand doctrinal development? All Christians have the right (and privilege) of searching the Scriptures to find the truth. Some like to chide Protestants for reading the Bible with an individualism that results in all kinds of division. But that is a caricature of how Protestants read Scripture. Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey address just such a misconception. “Even if one can deconstruct Protestantism this way, this radical democratization of interpretation is a principle only. It does not actually work out this way because most learn to read the Bible within an interpretive tradition that exercises considerable heft.”[12]  Protestantism doesn’t ignore history, but Protestants recognize that the Scriptures are sufficient in themselves to guide us into all the truth.

Most certainly, there is within Protestantism and evangelicalism plenty of doctrinal malfeasance; Christians believing what they should not, simply because it is popular or comfortable. What I describe is how Protestantism has historically understood Scriptural authority. Do many facets of evangelicalism need to repent of carelessness when it comes to the truth? Absolutely, But the solution that is not to substitute biblical authority for an ersatz, man-made authority.

The historical Protestant understanding is very different from the Roman Catholic model. Doctrine does not need to be tied to Scripture, nor be provable from it. The shifting sense of the magisterium from century to century means that what’s new can be declared true. For example, in 2008, five cardinals sent a petition to Pope Benedict XVI asking him to proclaim Mary as “the Spiritual Mother of All Humanity, the co-redemptrix with Jesus the redeemer, mediatrix of all graces with Jesus the one mediator, and advocate with Jesus Christ on behalf of the human race.”[13]  If this catches on with enough people, does it then dictate by the “sense of the faithful”, it is now dogma? Nothing would prevent this in Roman Catholic teaching.

The question, then, of whether “salient Protestant doctrines” were held in the first millennium is a misleading one. To make the church or a Christian community’s reception of truth, the measure of what is true is to turn authority upside down. Roland Hanson and Reginald Fuller aptly summarize the fallacy this encompasses: “It is not Scripture, it is not even tradition in the strict sense that is the test of belief, but ‘the sense or sentiment of the faithful’, ‘the instinct’, the ‘present thought of the Church’, ‘the intention of the heart’, ‘the feeling’ of the faithful. Within certain very broad limits and under given conditions, in matters doctrinal, whatever is, is right – because it is.”[14]

 

 

[1] https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/full-text-pope-francis-inflight-press-conference-from-armenia-45222

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 93.

[3] Jerome, “Dialogue Against the Luciferians”, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf206.vi.iv.html

[4] http://www.thearda.com/Archive/Files/Codebooks/GALLUP05_CB.asp.

[5] “Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice Among US Catholics”, http://cara.georgetown.edu/sacraments.html.

[6] Joseph Mitros, S.J, “The Norm of Faith in the Patristic Age, in Theological Studies, 29.3, (1968), p. 469.

[7] Nathan Busenitz, Long Before Luther (Chicago, Moody Publishers, 2017), p. 170.

[8] Ibid, p. 171.

[9] Ibid, p. 172.

[10] Ibid, p. 173.

[11] Ibid, p. 178.

[12] Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey, Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy (Waco, Baylor Univ. Press, 2008), p. 219.

[13] “Cardinals Hoping for a 5th Marian Dogma,” http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/z5mardogm.htm

[14] Richard Hanson, Reginald Fuller, The Church of Rome: A Dissuasive (London, SCM Press, 1950), p. 69.

Culture

Should Christians Vote?

Posted by M.Ferris on
 Many have written about the word “evangelical” being emptied of meaning. Questions about what it means to be an evangelical are not new, but the issue has taken on new urgency when it comes to our political engagement.  For much of Christian history, this was not really a factor, because representative government did not exist.  While the question of political involvement is not unique to the United States, the current atmosphere has believers rethinking what it means to be a politically involved follower of Christ.  One question it has raised (again) for me, should Christians vote?
Many will dismiss this out of hand. Of course believers should vote, and be engaged in civic life. We have a duty to God to be good stewards of what he has given to us. Part of that is citizenship in a representative democracy. Exercising that stewardship is not only a privilege but a responsibility. That is one stance, and I don’t dismiss it as unreasonable or even unbiblical. It may be difficult to find specific Scripture that points to this, but the application of biblical principles is legitimate.
The other side of the argument is, as Paul writes to the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we await a savior.” (3:20.)
The word translated citizenship is πολίτευμα (politeuma) from which we derive “politics.” Similarly, he wrote to Timothy, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” (2 Tim. 2:4.) Both of these passages point to the truth that although we live in this world, we are not of it, and our citizenship is elsewhere. Peter, also refers to the time of our sojourning, which is elsewhere translated alien, foreigner, strangerThe Anabaptist and Mennonite traditions have taken this as a clear indication to maintain a separation from the world and its systems. To abstain from voting is a manifestation of that.
 
The argument for voting usually rests on political engagement as a means to an end. That end is to engage the culture for God, to influence public policy to protect the vulnerable and to ensure liberty. Much of this ethos hearkens back to the 1980s, and the Moral Majority. Similar organizations grew up to join this fight, but  what have we gained by this? Has there been a reversal of the trend toward greater secularism? What has public policy been enacted that Christians can really get behind and say, at last, we have stemmed the tide of departure from God? The “culture wars” have not been kind to Christians, despite any “get out the vote” effort.
 
On the contrary, we have recently witnessed a casting aside of the distinctive testimony of the gospel purely in the interest of retaining power. Evangelicals have supported candidates who, were they members of our churches, would come in for discipline by that local church. The justification is, we need that vote. We need to ensure we get the right justices on the court, and no matter how personally distasteful a candidate may be, how poor an example he may be, we must still vote for him.
 
It is an open question whether using public policy to achieve such ends is even desirable. The gospel does not need government to accomplish its ends. The transformation that the gospel brings is entirely inward, and it then shows itself outwardly. But public policy effects no inward change whatsoever and runs the risk of deluding us into thinking we have achieved something for God. He has not called us to establish a theocracy, nor to Christianize society. Rather, we preach the gospel, and men and women are saved out of this world.
I know the argument that as long as we are in the world, we are called to faithfully influence our culture for the gospel and for God’s kingdom. But there is a difference between engagement and entanglement.
 
When we set aside faithfulness to the truth, and fidelity to all that the gospel encompasses for the expediency of power, is this not idolatry? What have we sacrificed in the testimony of the gospel when prominent Christians put political power above the witness of the gospel. This is not theory, but it’s happening before our eyes.
I am not saying that anyone who is a Christian should not vote. But I am saying that the argument for Christian influence in politics is weak, and getting weaker all the time. I am also saying that the more I consider it, the more I see the logic and consistency of the non-voting position from Scripture itself
 
 
Uncategorized

Encourage Those Whom You Think Don’t Need It

Posted by M.Ferris on
The character of the first churches in the New Testament varies widely. Most were founded in trial and affliction, and often there were issues that needed to be addressed. In Phillippi, a couple of women had some disagreement Paul needed to straighten out. The Galatians were in grave danger of accepting another gospel, and the Corinthians had a load of problems. Paul’s counsel and at times, rebuke, of them spans two letters. It is almost with overflowing relief that Paul writes his first letter to the Thessalonian church. The believers in that city were doing much to commend. Faith, hope, and love characterized their discipleship, and Paul expresses his affection several times. “For this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith.”(3:7.)
One may think that things are going so well in Thessalonica that Paul has little need to tell them what to do. But he does tell them and does so with the embrace of both praise and challenge. “Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.” (4:1)
Paul acknowledges how they are following the Lord Jesus just as he instructed them, and his delight in them throughout the letter is evident. What a comfort and joy their faith is to him! But he also urges them on to do so even more. There is always room for conformity to the Lord Jesus. You are doing well – keep doing it!
Many times elders and pastors spend time helping the struggling and the hurting, as they should. Those who don’t hold a New Testament office can and should do this also. The body builds itself up. But there are those faithfully going on with and for the Lord, month after month, year after year, who aren’t struggling. They aim to please God quietly, and like the Thessalonians, pursue the “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:3)
We should encourage such believers in the two-fold way that Paul does. Thank them for their steadfast example, and urge them to continue, striving to be imitators of the Lord with even greater closeness. You know some of these believers; they are part of your local church. They don’t seek recognition, but they are the bone and sinew of the body of Christ. Thank God for such Christians, and perhaps without fanfare, encourage them to persevere in their faithful testimony.
The Church/Reformation

Nominal Christianity and the Reformation Legacy

Posted by M.Ferris on
Reconciliation comes not when we accept ourselves as we are, but when we accept the sacrifice of Christ in our place.

On this 500th Reformation Day, and leading up to it, there has been a plethora of commentary on the divisions that remain in the Church
. These have typically focused on the Rome-Protestant divide, but there is another divide, just as tragic, perhaps even more so. That is those churches and believers who trace their heritage to the Reformation, but who have abandoned that lineage of truth.
They have not done so because they want to pursue greater unity with Rome, but rather because they have diluted the truth of Scripture.
This includes various mainline denominations who have steadily moved away from doctrinal imperatives. Attractional Christianity is not what I have in mind here, but nominalism. There are churches that maintain a veneer of truth, but whose raison d’etre represents social action, or relational support. The gospel absolutely impacts our relationships, and it calls us to action, but if we have redefined it to be primarily about the horizontal relationships rather than the vertical, we have left apostolic ground.
The gospel impacts our relationships with people because it redefines our relationship with God. No longer at enmity with him, we are at peace with him when we are in Christ. Without that peace, we are still under his wrath. But peace with God requires the sacrifice of Christ and the blood he shed that purchased our salvation. Without the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, his divinity, his death, and resurrection, we have nothing. We are of all men most pitiable. And the pity is, that many nominal Christians have either forgotten or have never known that a gospel without these truths is no gospel at all. The Reformation heritage is that these are vital truths.
 
One of the more common convictions to be jettisoned in nominalism is that our sin separates us from God. By emphasizing that we need to love and accept ourselves as God has created us, we dismiss his assessment that although we are created in his image, we are separated from him by our sin. Reconciliation comes not when we accept ourselves as we are, but when we accept the sacrifice of Christ in our place. that our sin has separated us from a holy God. He does not wink at sin nor write it off. He has paid for our sin in the death of His Son, and when we acknowledge this, and that my sin put Jesus on the cross, we uphold the gospel. The sacrifice of Christ and sin go together. If sin is not odious, an offense to God’s holiness, but instead just something of a human limitation, we dismiss the necessity of the cross.
There are many more areas where the mainline denominations have departed from biblical foundations, but sin is a big one.
 
These groups haven’t abandoned the Reformation heritage for a stricter authority, or a church hierarchy. They haven’t rallied around a magisterium, but they have just as surely left biblical authority behind. We should pray for their restoration (or in many cases, conversion) as much as we pray for the healing of other breaches.
 
Bible/Reformation

Priesthood: The Other Recovered Reformation Truth

Posted by M.Ferris on

When people think of the Reformation and its heritage, the most common thing is the recovery of justification by faith alone.  But one of the other things that Martin Luther proclaimed was the priesthood of all believers.  Luther didn’t practice this to the degree that the Reformation step-children (the Anabaptists) did, but still, this was a truth he did revive. With all of the talk about Protestants and Rome being not that far apart, we should recall that when it comes to the priesthood of all believers, the gap may be even wider than it is with justification.

Rome (and other sacramental/liturgical churches) still maintain a hierarchical structure, very much like the corporate world. You have a CEO (the Pope) and a board of directors (the College of Cardinals.) You have district managers (bishops) and regional managers (archbishops.) As some have noted, (see Stuart K. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church, p. 90) this structure was imported wholly from the governmental organization of the empire that early church fathers were familiar with.

But when we come to the New Testament, no such things exist. No pope, no archbishop, no cardinal. Bishops we have, but they are not regional officers, overseeing all the churches of a certain area. They are elders (always plural) over one local congregation. They are synonymous with Presbyters (from which Rome and Orthodoxy have drawn priests), and their work is to shepherd a local flock. They are not rulers, but guides.

Deacons we find as well. Their qualifications are very much the same as those of elders – always focusing on the character of the man primarily, and secondarily on the work they do.  The only priests known in the New Testament are every single believer in Jesus Christ. This is where the priesthood of all believers comes from. Not only is there no hierarchy found in the New Testament, but every believer is fit to worship, and to be part of building up of the body, in love.

No hint of clericalism is found in the New Testament, nor a separate class of clergy/laity. We are all the called of Jesus Christ. (Rom. 1:6.) When it comes to celebrating the Lord’s Supper, nothing prevents a group of believers from partaking in this. No bishop or church leader is needed to officially preside or bless the elements.  Similarly, when it comes to baptism, any Christian could perform a baptism. This is some of what it means to exercise the priesthood of all believers. In pointing these things out, I do not imply that those who have devoted themselves to the work of the gospel full time are not to be honored. Indeed, as Paul says, we should esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. (1 Thess. 5:13.) We need their shepherding and care.  But I’m likewise sure that no one engaged in the work of the gospel would turn down the help of other believers.

Exercising our priesthood may show itself most clearly in our study of and handling the Word of God. Every Christian has the duty, the privilege, of reading the Scriptures for himself or herself and to apply it to their lives. We do so without requiring the intervention of any “clergyman.”  We do so dependant on the Holy Spirit, whom, it was promised by the Lord Jesus, would guide us into the truth. We do so relying on the power of the Word of God as living and active. We wield the sword of the Spirit because God Himself has put it into our hands, equipped us for battle, and said that we have a heavenly captain.

Rome still wants to maintain control of the Scriptures, and reserve for itself the “true meaning.” But at this 500th Reformation anniversary, recall (and rejoice) that the Scriptures in the hands of God’s people is a heritage to celebrate. We do so by exercising our priesthood – all of us – as equipped for our ministry by God alone.

Catholicism/Reformation

The Fragile Doctrine of Justification

Posted by M.Ferris on

As all but cave-dwellers know, this coming Tuesday, October 31st, is the 500th anniversary Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to door of the castle church in in Wittenberg. Many have commented that the Reformation is over, and that the similarities between Rome and Protestantism are such that the two sides should pursue a shared future. But this is wishful thinking at best, and willful ignorance at worst. The two sides are by no means in agreement on fundamental issues of salvation and grace, to say nothing of ecclesiology.  What has changed is that individual Roman Catholics and even the Pope himself have declared solidarity with Luther on justification by faith. But due to the nature of authority in the Church, this has created an odd situation. Who speaks for the official church? If it is the hierarchy and the magisterium, then Rome and Protestantism are still very far apart. If it is the Pope and his pronouncements, these are in contrast to official teaching. In short, Rome has its own authority problem.
For any who may wonder about th
e difference in justification, the following diagram illustrates this.

 

Justification for the Protestant/Evangelical believer is a crisis followed by a process. We are justified by faith in Christ. This faith is personal and individual. Each believer must exercise it. This is why baptism follows faith. It is a picture of dying with Christ, being buried with him, and being raised to new life. Baptism is not saving, it does not put one into the body of Christ. It is a picture, a powerful one to be sure, of a spiritual reality. But it does not impart grace or spiritual life. It is a step of obedience on the part of a believer.

Sanctification is the process of making us more like Christ. It is a life-long process, but importantly, while it makes us more like Christ, sanctification does not alter our standing with God. It alters our condition, but never our position with God. Our position is based on the finished work of Christ, and can never be altered. This is why salvation is often portrayed as new life, new birth, a new creation. Eternal life is just that – never-ending. NO man can pluck us from Christ’s hand, nor can our sin. Our sin – all of it – was paid for on Calvary, and the resurrection is God’s resounding affirmation of his satisfaction in his son.

The Roman Catholic understanding of salvation is very different. Baptism starts this process, and indeed, puts one into the Church, and imparts eternal life. Without this rite, salvation is not possible. The fact that an infant cannot express faith is entirely unimportant.   Grace is infused throughout the life of a believer as they partake of the sacraments, and as they persevere in works the Church has defined as necessary.  The chart above shows references from Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), but it should be noted, the Catechism is a passel of ambiguity and contradiction. Some things can be read as entirely congruous with evangelical doctrine, other things are wholly at odds with biblical teaching. This is, no doubt, by design, because the Church ultimately reserves the full understanding of any teaching to itself, to its hierarchy.

The most striking difference is that with Rome,  righteousness is not imputed to the believer as a once and for all act, following which we grow into greater likeness to Christ. Rather, righteousness is granted to the believer as a result of cooperating with grace throughout a life of obedience. In other words, it is by works, by what we do, can be lost. It is therefore not eternal life, but probational life. One’s position in heaven will only be attained if one’s condition is good enough. Justification and sanctification become intertwined, and if you’re not sanctified enough, then you will not in the end be justified!

This is exactly the opposite of the New Testament teaching on what it means to be “In Christ.” When we are in Christ, our position is with him in the heavenly places. If we sin, we grieve the Holy Spirit, our fellowship is broken, but we do not lose our eternal life.  Because our position is based on his work and not ours, our sins do not put us outside of Christ. Nothing can.

When people tell you that Catholics and Protestants really believe the same thing about salvation, don’t believe it.  This is a reminder that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is always – and once again – under attack. I do not say Roman Catholics are attacking it, but the enemy of our souls is because he hates these truths and the freedom and peace that they bring. It is a fragile doctrine if we are not good stewards of these truths. At this half-millennium anniversary of the Reformation, let everyone who understands these truths re-commit to their clear proclamation.

A word to any Roman Catholics reading this – I pray that you would consider what the Scriptures say about eternal life. Regardless of what the Church may say, search the Scriptures and see if these things are so. Those of us who understand and value the incredible truths of justification by faith pray that you, too, would understand what Jesus has already done to purchase your salvation.

 

Uncategorized

The crux of the Reformation is a question of authority

Posted by M.Ferris on
Authority is found in God’s Word, not in the Church

Heiko Oberman summarized one aspect of Luther’s view of Scripture as follows: “The Church is the creation of the Word, but the Word can never be the creation of the Church.” This 500th anniversary month of the Reformation is a good time to revisit the truth this presents. One nexus of the Reformation difference is one of authority. For the evangelical, authority is in the Scriptures, and for the Roman Catholic or Orthodox, it is found in the Church. Here, too, one must be clear about the definition of the church. For the evangelical, the church is an organism, a living body composed of all the born-again souls redeemed by the Lord Jesus. There is no earthly headquarters, no earthly head. For the sacramental traditions, the church is an organization, a hierarchy. The bishops, archbishops, and cardinals that comprise the hierarchy are for these traditions, “the Church.” This is why the phrase is sometimes used, “As the Church teaches, and has always taught…” Believers who are grounded in Scripture don’t use such a phrase, knowing that the church doesn’t teach anything – Scripture teaches us.

 
How do you know what the Scriptures are?

One sometimes hears the claim that “you would not know what the Scriptures are if the Church didn’t tell you.” This sounds like a plausible claim on the surface, but it’s false. It represents a particular way of looking at authority, and is, in fact, a denial of the intrinsic power and God-breathed nature of Scripture. It is both spiritually false, and historically inaccurate. What we now call the Old Testament, Paul called “the sacred writings” in 2 Tim. 3:15, and he ascribed to them a power, as inspired by God himself. The authority of these books was, therefore, a given at the time of the apostles. Authority is not the same as canonicity, and the latter is an exercise that recognizes the former. The view that says the Church must tell us what books are Scripture is a denial of the inherent authority of these God-breathed writings. The same is true of the New Testament writings. There were many extant writings at the time of the apostles, but the 27 books we have as the New Testament are the only ones preserved as canonical. Why? These books showed themselves to be divinely inspired, to be the product of the apostles or their delegates. In short, the books of the Bible are self-authenticating and needed no external approval. The councils that later pronounced on the books of Scripture did nothing but recognize what already prevailed.  These books are the words of God Himself. The sacramental traditions claim to agree with this, but in practice, they deny it. As Michael Kruger has written,

The only option left to the Catholic model is to declare that the church’s authority is self-authenticating and needs no external authority to validate it. Or, more bluntly put, we ought to believe in the infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church because it says so. The Catholic Church, then, finds itself in the awkward place of having chided the Reformers for having a self-authenticating authority (sola scriptura), when all the while it has engaged in that very same activity by setting itself up as a self-authenticating authority (sola ecclesia). On the Catholic model, the Scripture’s own claims should not be received on their own authority, but apparently, the church’s own claims should be received on their own authority. The Roman Catholic Church, functionally speaking, is committed to sola ecclesia.[1]

The church – all of those redeemed by God – has a role in the canon. That role is to recognize and submit to the Word of God. The locus of authority can never be the church itself. She is the bride of Christ, subject to his word. She does not form the word or pronounce judgment on the word. Indeed, Luther’s words simply echo what Peter wrote: “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” (1 Pet. 1:23). 

 
[1] Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton, Crossway Publishers), Kindle Locations 914-921.
Gospels/Christology

I Always Do What Pleases Him

Posted by M.Ferris on
The Humility of Jesus in John’s Gospel

John’s gospel is a unique document, and students of the life of Christ rightly set this gospel apart from the others. There are the synoptic gospels, and John. John contains 879 verses, and only 124 of these are traceable to the other gospels. This means a full 86% of John’s material is unique to his gospel. A striking aspect of the book is how often Jesus refers to his father. When referring to God, Matthew contains 42 occurrences of “Father.” Mark has 4, and Luke 13. But John’s gospel has 113 such references. What do these many references to God as the Father of Jesus tell us?

Jesus the Eternal Son

The character of this gospel is to present Jesus as the man from heaven. He is the one coming from above, the Word of God, the one in the bosom of the Father, making God known.

The deity of Christ is unequivocal in John. Jesus is equal with God (5:18), he and the Father are one (10:30, 17:11). Before Abraham was, Jesus tells the Jews, “I am.” There was no mistaking what he meant, for the Jews took up stones to kill him. “I am” is a clear reference to the covenant name of God, revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14, I AM THAT I AM. One cannot read anything in John as a new category, that is, as Arianism claims, a god, but not THE God. In 17:3, Jesus says, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” If Jesus and the Father are one, and there is but one true God, a lesser god, and one in whom we find eternal life, is not possible.

The intimacy of the Father and the Son

In the gospel where the deity of Christ is so manifest, the book also displays the relationship of Jesus as the Son of the Father with great intimacy. The Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he is doing (5:20). He tells the Twelve that whoever has seen him has seen the Father. (14:9). If they know him, they know the Father also. The 14th chapter is filled with references to the Father doing, acting, loving toward the believer, and the ground of it all is the relationship of the Father and the Son. Jesus will ask the Father, and he will send the comforter (14:16.) The words of life, all that Jesus has heard from his Father, he has made known to the disciples. (15:15). But the self-giving love of the Son means that this intimacy is shared with believers. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” (15:9). And those who love the Son will be loved by the Father (14:21.)  The great hymn writer Horatius Bonar captures this sentiment when he writes:

So dear, so very dear to God,
More dear I cannot be;
The love wherewith He loves the Son,
Such is His love to me.

The humility of the Son

A wonder of John’s gospel is the portrayal of Jesus in his humility. He is the Son who does only what he sees the Father doing (5:19). He seeks not his own will, but the will of him who sent him (5:30). This, of course, culminates at the cross. Giving himself freely, out of love for the Father, and in submission to his Father, this is Calvary. “The cup that the Father has given me, shall I not drink it?” Peter would intervene, but Jesus explains that in going to the cross, coming to this hour, that the Father is glorified (12:28). Paul muses on this mystery in Philippians 2, when he says Jesus humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross. This, believer, is the substance of our worship. The Son’s humility in going to the cross, fulfilling what his Father sent him into the world to do, accomplishing all, made it possible for Jesus to utter “It is finished.”

This display of humility in the eternal Son of God is the substance of our worship. We can never stray very far from the condescension of Calvary. We should never, for Christ crucified is the heart of the gospel. This makes a frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper an important reminder to us. Considering his humiliation, his death, never gets old, never becomes routine.

His life of humility is also the pattern for the believer. In John 13, when Jesus set aside his outer garments, and took up a towel, washing the disciple’s feet, he presented a model to them. “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” Later, in his first epistle, John will expand on this, “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” A sin-cursed world needs to see believers satisfied and marveling at the wonder of Calvary. But it also needs to see believers modeling the example of Jesus.

Culture

Deus Ex Machina

Posted by M.Ferris on

Yesterday’s iPhone X announcement was not so much a product announcement as a media event. While technology writers covered the event, it’s notable that the NY Times TV critic James Poniewozik also wrote about it. Indeed, he writes about the launch as Apple selling us “a better vision of ourselves.”

As society has become increasingly technologized, it is ever so tempting to apply technology to all problems, but more than that, to imagine that some thing, some device will make me better. It will make me smarter, more productive, and more efficient. Yesterday’s iPhone event is an example of how we are lured into this mindset. Apple is masterful at presenting their technology as indispensable for your life. And it’s not just Apple that does this. All technology companies do it – Google, Amazon, et al are all selling a version of a life made better by technology.

The Scriptures warn about worshiping and serving the creature rather than the creator. We can paraphrase that to say the device rather than the deity. Think about how often you check your phone, how infrequently you are without it, how it demands your attention through notifications. All of us spend a lot of time with our technology. This can overwhelm other aspects of our lives, and what is “virtual” can dominate what is truly real.

The prescient Neil Postman wrote about this in his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. The book is now 24 years old, making his observations all the more remarkable. The danger, says Postman, is when a society moves from technocracy to technopoly, where the culture becomes so dominated by technology that we believe it holds all the answers. “Technopoly’s hold [is] to make people believe that technological innovation is synonymous with human progress.”[1] It is difficult to argue that we have not entered such a stage, where technology is treated with decreased skepticism. Indeed, we may have moved from technopoly to technolatry.

But our greatest need is not a better vision of ourselves, but a new version of ourselves – a new creation. That doesn’t come through technology, but through new life in Christ. The problems that still plague humankind are not problems that technology can solve, or that quicker access to more information will ameliorate. As Postman further observed, we should not assume “that the most serious problems confronting us both at personal and public levels require technical solutions through fast access to adequate information… If families break up, children are mistreated, crime terrorizes a city, education is impotent, it does not happen because of inadequate information. Mathematical equations, instantaneous communication, and vast quantities of information have nothing to do with these problems. And the computer is useless in addressing them.”[2]

We may not bow down to wood or stone, but our propensity to worship the creature (or what we create) rather than the creator is a part of our fallen condition. Christians should be aware and on guard for the subtle encroachment of the “god in the machine” that whispers and chirps to us.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains is not written from a Christian perspective, but much of what he writes applies to Christians. More recently, Tony Reinke’s Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You is specifically aimed at believers with exhortations to be wise about our technology consumption.

Poniewozik muses on what the iPhone X means for him. “I’m not going to pretend that I’m immune to this allure… I will almost certainly buy one of the new phones. What will I do with it? What does anyone? I will Instagram photos of my cooking that I think look more appetizing than they are. I will see another tweet from the president. I will Google song lyrics. I will read Facebook posts and get mad on the internet. And another year from now, I’ll set another reminder to watch another Apple event, believing somewhere deep down that with one more upgrade, I might be perfected.”

Christians need to recall what the writer to the Hebrews said about the Lord Jesus. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Overcoming sin, and becoming more like the Lord Jesus – there’s not an app for that.

 

[1] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York, Vintage Books, 1993), p. 117.

[2] Neil Postman, p. 119.