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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.