Monday, October 31, 2016

"I HATE GOD!" Reformation Day and Luther in Grace Works

Temporary forgiveness: bilgewater of heresies
Happy Reformation Day! It is a happy day, happy because by grace alone Luther did not continue in his hatred of God. Grace in Christ made a conquest of Luther. Grace is generationally where the battle lines are always drawn. We don't really like grace. We don't like to think we are so depraved that we need it, not entirely. What Luther and the Reformers rediscovered nearly 500 years ago was that we need to keep hearing of Christ and his free and sovereign saving grace in every generation. It must remain the central message of the Christian church. 

This is the premise of my most controversial book GRACE WORKS, And Ways We Think it Doesn't (P&R, 2014). Most controversial, you say? Just as in Luther's day his most virulent opponents were those inside the visible church. But we must remember, the same was true in Jesus' day and the days of the apostles. It should not surprise us that the same remains true today. Hence, we need a reformation every generation--every day ought to be Reformation Day! In celebration of the special day on the calendar, I thought I'd post a few Luther-related excerpts from GRACE WORKS, And Ways We Think it Doesn't.

...Another expression of our sinfulness emerges in our resentment at the very fact of it. We're quick to accuse God of being too tough on us, of being too harsh. His standard is too hard. Why doesn't he just lighten up a bit? I’ve long thought that Jesus’ words, “Be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), read in isolation from the good news, constitute the scariest verse in the Bible. Martin Luther came to the place where he admitted that he hated God for his holy requirement of perfection from us. “This word is too high and too hard that anyone should fulfill it,” he wrote.
This is proved, not merely by our Lord's word, but by our own experience and feeling. Take any upright man or woman. He will get along very nicely with those who do not provoke him, but let someone proffer only the slightest irritation and he will flare up in anger, if not against friends, then against enemies. Flesh and blood cannot rise above it.[1]
But that doesn't mean we don't keep trying to win God's favor by our efforts. Luther told of his own desperate labors to appease God's wrath, "I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.”[2]
Only when we, like Luther, come to know how impossible it is for us to keep God's law, how futile it is for us to think we can win God over by our efforts, never mind how sincere or strenuous, will we be ready to hear the good news.
As true as it is that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," Paul hastens to tell us in the next verse that hopelessly unworthy sinners "are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:23, 24)...

...The great champion of justification by faith alone, Martin Luther, understood just how essential getting the distinction between law and gospel is: “Whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him place at the head and call a doctor of Holy Scripture.”[1]
Why did Luther have such extravagant praise for preachers who don’t make a mingle-mangle of law and gospel? I think it’s because he understood the enormous damage done to the gospel by law-creep, when men allow the slightest degree of law-keeping conditionality to creep into the message of the gospel...

...Notice that the same words are being used, and it sounds pretty good. But rearranging the order, even slightly, destroys the freedom of the gospel. The operative word is “alone” and nudging the keystone of that word out of place brings down the entire structure. For Luther the doctrine of justification by faith alone was “the issue on which the church stands or falls.” R. C. Sproul warns that there is a “full-scale assault” launched within Protestant evangelicalism against the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Without this doctrine, “the gospel is not merely compromised, it is lost altogether.”[1]

...“It is just as impossible to separate faith and works,” wrote Martin Luther, “as it is to separate heat and light from fire!” He called all those who don’t believe and teach this “the greatest of fools!”[1] The instant we begin to separate them, we inevitably make works a requirement, a condition, of faith. Hence, Satan’s strategy is by all means to get us to separate faith and works--and to preen ourselves for the wisdom of our new discovery—but he never wants us to realize that we’ve become the greatest of fools...

...I doubt Luther would have thought a doctrine of temporary forgiveness was anything like entering the gates of paradise, as he referred to his conversion. Imagine Luther’s glee at the discovery: “At last, I get it. Whatever else justification is, it is forgiveness, but only temporary forgiveness. O the joy! My burden is lifted—sort of, at least for the moment.” Temporary forgiveness would be more like having your head smashed in the gates of paradise as they clanged shut. 
Or imagine a hymn of praise to God about temporary forgiveness. The cry of the five bleeding wounds of the Savior in Charles Wesley's hymn would have to sound more like this: "Sort of forgive they cry, sort of forgive they cry; maybe not let that sort of ransomed sinner die." I can’t imagine a doctrine of temporary forgiveness warming anyone’s heart to praise. 

Not only does it make for ridiculously bad hymn poetry, such a declaration is devastating to the central doctrine of justification by faith alone; if justification is about forgiveness of sins and the Bible teaches that you can be justified and have forgiveness of sins—and then lose or forfeit it, the entire structure of reformational theology crumbles. It is precisely here where the confessional standards help Christians in every generation to continue to believe what the Bible teaches and...  

Douglas Bond is author of many books, including forthcoming LUTHER IN LOVE (forthcoming, 2017). He is also leading a LUTHER 500 REFORMATION TOUR, June 15-25, 2017. Space is limited so register (what better day to register than REFORMATION DAY!). You can purchase a signed copy of GRACE WORKS at 

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