Sunday, November 1, 2009

Luther's Theology of the Cross

by Carl Trueman

No one could have expected that the Reformation would be launched by Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses against Indulgences in October 1517. The document itself simply proposed the framework for a university debate. Luther was arguing only for a revision of the practice of indulgences, not its abolition. He was certainly not offering an agenda for widespread theological and ecclesiastical reform.

Indeed, he had already said much more controversial things in his Disputation against Scholastic Theology of September 4, 1517, in which he critiqued the whole way in which medieval theology had been done for centuries. That disputation, however, passed without a murmur. Indeed, humanly speaking, it was only the unique combination of external factors—social, economic, and political—that made the later disputation the spark that lit the Reformation fuse.

The Heidelberg Disputation

Once the fuse had been lit, however, the church made a fatal error: she allowed the Augustinian Order, to which Luther belonged, to deal with the problem as if it were a minor local difficulty. There was to be a meeting of the Order in Heidelberg in April 1518, and Luther was asked to present a series of theses outlining his theology, so that it could be assessed by his brethren. It was here, then, that the relatively bland Ninety-Five Theses gave Luther an important opportunity to articulate the theology that he had expressed in his September Disputation.

The Heidelberg Disputation is significant for two things. First, there was at least one other future Reformation giant present. This was Martin Bucer, the Reformer of Strasbourg, who would end his days as professor of divinity at Cambridge. A man of vast intellect and wide ecumenical vision, Bucer was to have a profound influence on a generation of Reformers, not least John Calvin. And his first taste of Reformation thinking was provided by Luther at Heidelberg in 1517. Yet, while Bucer left the disputation marveling at how Luther had attacked what the church had become, he missed the theological core of what Luther was saying. This is the second point of importance: the theology of the cross.

The Theology of the Cross

Toward the end of the disputation, Luther offered some theses which seem (in typical Luther fashion) nonsensical, or at least obscure:

19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1:20].
20. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.
22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.

These statements actually encapsulate the heart of Luther's theology, and a good grasp of what he means by the obscure terms and phrases they contain sheds light not just on the doctrinal content of his theology, but also on the very way that he believed theologians should think. Indeed, he is taking Paul's explosive argument from 1 Corinthians and developing it into a full theological agenda.

At the heart of his argument is his notion that human beings should not speculate about who God is or how he acts in advance of actually seeing whom he has revealed himself to be. Thus, Luther sees God's revelation of himself as axiomatic to all theology. Now, there probably is not a heretic in history who would not agree with that, because all theology presupposes the revelation of God, whether in nature, human reason, culture, or whatever.

Luther, however, had a dramatically restrictive view of revelation. God revealed himself as merciful to humanity in the Incarnation, when he manifested himself in human flesh, and the supreme moment of that revelation was on the cross at Calvary. Indeed, Luther sometimes referred enigmatically to Christ crucified as "God's backside"—the point at which God appeared to be the very contradiction of all that one might reasonably have anticipated him to be.

The "theologians of glory," therefore, are those who build their theology in the light of what they expect God to be like—and, surprise, surprise, they make God to look something like themselves. The "theologians of the cross," however, are those who build their theology in the light of God's own revelation of himself in Christ hanging on the cross.


The implications of this position are revolutionary. For a start, Luther is demanding that the entire theological vocabulary be revised in light of the cross. Take for example the word power. When theologians of glory read about divine power in the Bible, or use the term in their own theology, they assume that it is analogous to human power. They suppose that they can arrive at an understanding of divine power by magnifying to an infinite degree the most powerful thing of which they can think. In light of the cross, however, this understanding of divine power is the very opposite of what divine power is all about. Divine power is revealed in the weakness of the cross, for it is in his apparent defeat at the hands of evil powers and corrupt earthly authorities that Jesus shows his divine power in the conquest of death and of all the powers of evil. So when a Christian talks about divine power, or even about church or Christian power, it is to be conceived of in terms of the cross—power hidden in the form of weakness.

For Luther, the same procedure must be applied to other theological terms. For example, God's wisdom is demonstrated in the foolishness of the cross. Who would have thought up the foolish idea of God taking human flesh in order to die a horrendous death on behalf of sinners who had deliberately defied him, or God making sinners pure by himself becoming sin for them, or God himself raising up a people to newness of life by himself submitting to death? We could go on, looking at such terms as life, blessing, holiness, and righteousness. Every single one must be reconceived in the light of the cross. All are important theological concepts; all are susceptible to human beings casting them in their own image; and all must be recast in the light of the cross.

This insight is one of the factors in Luther's thinking that gives his theology an inner logic and coherence. Take, for example, his understanding of justification, whereby God declares the believer to be righteous in his sight, not by virtue of any intrinsic righteousness (anything that the believer has done or acquired), but on the basis of an alien righteousness, the righteousness of Christ that remains external to the believer. Is this not typical of the strange but wonderful logic of the God of the cross? The person who is really unrighteous, really mired in sin, is actually declared by God to be pure and righteous! Such a truth is incomprehensible to human logic, but makes perfect sense in light of the logic of the cross.

And what of the idea of a God who comes down and loves the unlovely and the unrighteous before the objects of his love have any inclination to love him or do good? Such is incomprehensible to the theologians of glory, who assume that God is like them, like other human beings, and thus only responds to those who are intrinsically attractive or good, or who first earn his favor in some way. But the cross shows that God is not like that: against every assumption that human beings might make about who God is and how he acts, he requires no prior loveliness in the objects of his love; rather, his prior love creates that loveliness without laying down preconditions. Such a God is revealed with amazing and unexpected tenderness and beauty in the ugly and violent drama of the cross.

The Key to Christian Ethics and Experience

Luther does not restrict the theology of the cross to an objective revelation of God. He also sees it as the key to understanding Christian ethics and experience. Foundational to both is the role of faith: to the eyes of unbelief, the cross is nonsense; it is what it seems to be—the crushing, filthy death of a man cursed by God. That is how the unbelieving mind interprets the cross—foolishness to Greeks and an offence to Jews, depending on whether your chosen sin is intellectual arrogance or moral self-righteousness. To the eyes opened by faith, however, the cross is seen as it really is. God is revealed in the hiddenness of the external form. And faith is understood to be a gift of God, not a power inherent in the human mind itself.

This principle of faith then allows the believer to understand how he or she is to behave. United to Christ, the great king and priest, the believer too is both a king and a priest. But these offices are not excuses for lording it over others. In fact, kingship and priesthood are to be enacted in the believer as they are in Christ—through suffering and self-sacrifice in the service of others. The believer is king of everything by being a servant of everyone; the believer is completely free by being subject to all. As Christ demonstrated his kingship and power by death on the cross, so the believer does so by giving himself or herself unconditionally to the aid of others. We are to be, as Luther puts it, little Christs to our neighbors, for in so doing we find our true identity as children of God.

This argument is explosive, giving a whole new understanding of Christian authority. Elders, for example, are not to be those renowned for throwing their weight around, for badgering others, and for using their position or wealth or credentials to enforce their own opinions. No, the truly Christian elder is the one who devotes his whole life to the painful, inconvenient, and humiliating service of others, for in so doing he demonstrates Christlike authority, the kind of authority that Christ himself demonstrated throughout his incarnate life and supremely on the cross at Calvary.

Great Blessings through Great Suffering

The implications of the theology of the cross for the believer do not stop there. The cross is paradigmatic for how God will deal with believers who are united to Christ by faith. In short, great blessing will come through great suffering.

This point is hard for those of us in the affluent West to swallow. For example, some years ago I lectured at a church gathering on this topic and pointed out that the cross was not simply an atonement, but a revelation of how God deals with those whom he loves. I was challenged afterwards by an individual who said that Luther's theology of the cross did not give enough weight to the fact that the cross and resurrection marked the start of the reversal of the curse, and that great blessings should thus be expected; to focus on suffering and weakness was therefore to miss the eschatological significance of Christ's ministry.

Of course, this individual had failed to apply Luther's theology of the cross as thoroughly as he should have done. All that he said was true, but he failed to understand what he was saying in light of the cross. Yes, Luther would agree, the curse is being rolled back, but that rollback is demonstrated by the fact that, thanks to the cross, evil is now utterly subverted in the cause of good. If the cross of Christ, the most evil act in human history, can be in line with God's will and be the source of the decisive defeat of the very evil that caused it, then any other evil can also be subverted to the cause of good.

More than that, if the death of Christ is mysteriously a blessing, then any evil that the believer experiences can be a blessing too. Yes, the curse is reversed; yes, blessings will flow; but who declared that these blessings have to be in accordance with the aspirations and expectations of affluent America? The lesson of the cross for Luther is that the most blessed person upon earth, Jesus Christ himself, was revealed as blessed precisely in his suffering and death. And if that is the way that God deals with his beloved son, have those who are united to him by faith any right to expect anything different?

This casts the problem of evil in a somewhat different light for Luther than, say, for Harold Kushner, the rabbi who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People. They happen, Luther would say, because that is how God blesses them. God accomplishes his work in the believer by doing his alien work (the opposite of what we expect); he really blesses by apparently cursing.

Indeed, when it is grasped that the death of Christ, the greatest crime in history, was itself willed in a deep and mysterious way by the triune God, yet without involving God in any kind of moral guilt, we see the solution to the age-old problem of absolving an all-powerful God of responsibility for evil. The answer to the problem of evil does not lie in trying to establish its point of origin, for that is simply not revealed to us. Rather, in the moment of the cross, it becomes clear that evil is utterly subverted for good. Romans 8:28 is true because of the cross of Christ: if God can take the greatest of evils and turn it to the greatest of goods, then how much more can he take the lesser evils which litter human history, from individual tragedies to international disasters, and turn them to his good purpose as well.

Luther's theology of the cross is too rich to be covered adequately in a single article, but I hope that my brief sketch above will indicate the rich vein of theological reflection which can be mined by those who reflect upon 1 Corinthians 1 and upon the dramatic antitheses between appearance and reality that are scattered throughout Scripture and marshaled with such force by Martin Luther. An antidote to sentimentality, prosperity doctrine, and an excessively worldly eschatology, this is theological gold dust. The cross is not simply the point at which God atones for sin; it is also a profound revelation of who God is and how he acts toward his creation.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther

Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther

on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences

by Dr. Martin Luther (1517)

Published in:

Works of Martin Luther:

Adolph Spaeth, L.D. Reed, Henry Eyster Jacobs, et Al., Trans. & Eds.

(Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915), Vol.1, pp. 29-38

Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter.

In the Name our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.

2. This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.

3. Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.

4. The penalty [of sin], therefore, continues so long as hatred of self continues; for this is the true inward repentance, and continues until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

5. The pope does not intend to remit, and cannot remit any penalties other than those which he has imposed either by his own authority or by that of the Canons.

6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God's remission; though, to be sure, he may grant remission in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in such cases were despised, the guilt would remain entirely unforgiven.

7. God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest.

8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to them, nothing should be imposed on the dying.

9. Therefore the Holy Spirit in the pope is kind to us, because in his decrees he always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.

10. Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory.

11. This changing of the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory is quite evidently one of the tares that were sown while the bishops slept.

12. In former times the canonical penalties were imposed not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.

13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties; they are already dead to canonical rules, and have a right to be released from them.

14. The imperfect health [of soul], that is to say, the imperfect love, of the dying brings with it, of necessity, great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater is the fear.

15. This fear and horror is sufficient of itself alone (to say nothing of other things) to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair.

16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ as do despair, almost-despair, and the assurance of safety.

17. With souls in purgatory it seems necessary that horror should grow less and love increase.

18. It seems unproved, either by reason or Scripture, that they are outside the state of merit, that is to say, of increasing love.

19. Again, it seems unproved that they, or at least that all of them, are certain or assured of their own blessedness, though we may be quite certain of it.

20. Therefore by "full remission of all penalties" the pope means not actually "of all," but only of those imposed by himself.

21. Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope's indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved;

22. Whereas he remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to the canons, they would have had to pay in this life.

23. If it is at all possible to grant to any one the remission of all penalties whatsoever, it is certain that this remission can be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to the very fewest.

24. It must needs be, therefore, that the greater part of the people are deceived by that indiscriminate and highsounding promise of release from penalty.

25. The power which the pope has, in a general way, over purgatory, is just like the power which any bishop or curate has, in a special way, within his own diocese or parish.

26. The pope does well when he grants remission to souls [in purgatory], not by the power of the keys (which he does not possess), but by way of intercession.

27. They preach man who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory].

28. It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.

29. Who knows whether all the souls in purgatory wish to be bought out of it, as in the legend of Sts. Severinus and Paschal.

30. No one is sure that his own contrition is sincere; much less that he has attained full remission.

31. Rare as is the man that is truly penitent, so rare is also the man who truly buys indulgences, i.e., such men are most rare.

32. They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon.

33. Men must be on their guard against those who say that the pope's pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to Him;

34. For these "graces of pardon" concern only the penalties of sacramental satisfaction, and these are appointed by man.

35. They preach no Christian doctrine who teach that contrition is not necessary in those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessionalia.

36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.

37. Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon.

38. Nevertheless, the remission and participation [in the blessings of the Church] which are granted by the pope are in no way to be despised, for they are, as I have said, the declaration of divine remission.

39. It is most difficult, even for the very keenest theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the abundance of pardons and [the need of] true contrition.

40. True contrition seeks and loves penalties, but liberal pardons only relax penalties and cause them to be hated, or at least, furnish an occasion [for hating them].

41. Apostolic pardons are to be preached with caution, lest the people may falsely think them preferable to other good works of love.

42. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend the buying of pardons to be compared in any way to works of mercy.

43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons;

44. Because love grows by works of love, and man becomes better; but by pardons man does not grow better, only more free from penalty.

45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.

46. Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep back what is necessary for their own families, and by no means to squander it on pardons.

47. Christians are to be taught that the buying of pardons is a matter of free will, and not of commandment.

48. Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting pardons, needs, and therefore desires, their devout prayer for him more than the money they bring.

49. Christians are to be taught that the pope's pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God.

50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter's church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.

51. Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope's wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold.

52. The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it.

53. They are enemies of Christ and of the pope, who bid the Word of God be altogether silent in some Churches, in order that pardons may be preached in others.

54. Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or a longer time is spent on pardons than on this Word.

55. It must be the intention of the pope that if pardons, which are a very small thing, are celebrated with one bell, with single processions and ceremonies, then the Gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.

56. The "treasures of the Church," out of which the pope. grants indulgences, are not sufficiently named or known among the people of Christ.

57. That they are not temporal treasures is certainly evident, for many of the vendors do not pour out such treasures so easily, but only gather them.

58. Nor are they the merits of Christ and the Saints, for even without the pope, these always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outward man.

59. St. Lawrence said that the treasures of the Church were the Church's poor, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time.

60. Without rashness we say that the keys of the Church, given by Christ's merit, are that treasure;

61. For it is clear that for the remission of penalties and of reserved cases, the power of the pope is of itself sufficient.

62. The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.

63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.

64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.

65. Therefore the treasures of the Gospel are nets with which they formerly were wont to fish for men of riches.

66. The treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the riches of men.

67. The indulgences which the preachers cry as the "greatest graces" are known to be truly such, in so far as they promote gain.

68. Yet they are in truth the very smallest graces compared with the grace of God and the piety of the Cross.

69. Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of apostolic pardons, with all reverence.

70. But still more are they bound to strain all their eyes and attend with all their ears, lest these men preach their own dreams instead of the commission of the pope.

71. He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!

72. But he who guards against the lust and license of the pardon-preachers, let him be blessed!

73. The pope justly thunders against those who, by any art, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons.

74. But much more does he intend to thunder against those who use the pretext of pardons to contrive the injury of holy love and truth

75. To think the papal pardons so great that they could absolve a man even if he had committed an impossible sin and violated the Mother of God -- this is madness.

76. We say, on the contrary, that the papal pardons are not able to remove the very least of venial sins, so far as its guilt is concerned.

77. It is said that even St. Peter, if he were now Pope, could not bestow greater graces; this is blasphemy against St. Peter and against the pope.

78. We say, on the contrary, that even the present pope, and any pope at all, has greater graces at his disposal; to wit, the Gospel, powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written in I. Corinthians xii.

79. To say that the cross, emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up [by the preachers of indulgences], is of equal worth with the Cross of Christ, is blasphemy.

80. The bishops, curates and theologians who allow such talk to be spread among the people, will have an account to render.

81. This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity.

82. To wit: -- "Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial."

83. Again: -- "Why are mortuary and anniversary masses for the dead continued, and why does he not return or permit the withdrawal of the endowments founded on their behalf, since it is wrong to pray for the redeemed?"

84. Again: -- "What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God, and do not rather, because of that pious and beloved soul's own need, free it for pure love's sake?"

85. Again: -- "Why are the penitential canons long since in actual fact and through disuse abrogated and dead, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences, as though they were still alive and in force?"

86. Again: -- "Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?"

87. Again: -- "What is it that the pope remits, and what participation does he grant to those who, by perfect contrition, have a right to full remission and participation?"

88. Again: -- "What greater blessing could come to the Church than if the pope were to do a hundred times a day what he now does once, and bestow on every believer these remissions and participations?"

89. "Since the pope, by his pardons, seeks the salvation of souls rather than money, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons granted heretofore, since these have equal efficacy?"

90. To repress these arguments and scruples of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the Church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies, and to make Christians unhappy.

91. If, therefore, pardons were preached according to the spirit and mind of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved; nay, they would not exist.

92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, "Peace, peace," and there is no peace!

93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, "Cross, cross," and there is no cross!

94. Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell;

95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Reformed Today: where the Saving Gospel being proclaimed

Christianity begins with a humble beginning
—Introduction text from film Jesus

In the beginning God create the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). Everything has a beginning, and all begin in God. God is Triune in His Being, thus all creation originally reflects His attributes. Everything begin in creation-perfect state, all is good. And among all creation God created man in accord to His exact Image (Heb. 1:4), our Lord Jesus.

God condescend Himself by creating His image through dust (Heb: Adama), and breathed out His Holy Spirit the life-giving Spirit to made His image alive. And this image bearer is called according to his origin, Adam. So, every time God calls Adam by his name, he know that he is a dust-man. From here we learn that even mankind begin from a very humble beginning.

From the beginning God condescend Himself to be reflected through His limited creation. God limited Himself by transferred life, logic, and even His exact Image to be represented by His created image. Creation has a uni-vocal point where God and His creation meet and that is in Christ. This should give us wonder to how great our God is, by shared not only His communicable attributes but even His existence by create us out of nothingness into shared existence in Christ.

Adam was created with analogical logic like God, he can know and think. Man logic, ethics, and imageness is shared by us because we are all one in Adam created in Christ. Through this double creation solidarity with God's exact Image, He shared all to us analogically. Where God know as the Creator, His knowledge is originate in Himself; analogically man know as creation, our knowledge is image of Him. Only God and His exact Image with Holy Spirit where the knowledge is uni-vocal.

Therefore when God has named all the animal before he created man, now after He created man, he created the animal again and bring those to Adam for him named all like God did. This mark the true condescension of God by shared His supremacy of naming His creation to a dust-man. All the name that Adam gives is harmonious to that which is given by God. This is what makes Adam officially ordained as the head of creation, because God bestowed His authority to His created image.

Where ever we think of ourself, think God is. Am I know where I stand before God? We should humble ourselves before God.
To understand His will first we must stand under His will (Rev. Stephen Tong, (H.C.),D.Div.).
That's why Knowing of God through Scripture in Christ is the most important thing for Christians. By know God we Christian will be empowered to do His will. And all begin when the Holy Spirit regenerates fallen man, so that man may come through faith in Christ to the Father.

Reformed Today now remember it's 1st anniversary. It's still young in it's goal to proclaim the Gospel but we believe that through any means we should proclaim God's Saving Gospel to all man, so that the elect may believed and saved. God already graciously guide all of us to keep praying and hold fast to the Scripture. We hope God's still continue His mighty works among us, so that we continue to remember that all glory is for Him alone. Soli Deo Gloria.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

John Calvin on Evangelism and Missions

By Ray Van Neste
from Founders Journal, How Does Doctrine Affect Evangelism?, Issue 33, Summer 1998.


From his own lifetime onward John Calvin has been a controversial person. One controversy stems from the accusations leveled against him by many that he was completely unevangelistic and unconcerned about missions. A. M. Hunter, in his book on Calvin's teaching, said, "Certainly he [Calvin] displayed no trace of missionary enthusiasm."[1] Some have even said that Calvin's teaching on predestination necessarily destroyed evangelistic fervor; "we are all familiar with the scornful rationalization that facilely asserts that his horrible doctrine of divine election makes nonsense of all missionary and evangelistic activity."[2] Others, however, have said: "One of the natural results of Calvin's perspective of predestination was an intensified zeal for evangelism."[3] Though some have used Calvin's teachings to excuse their apathy towards evangelism, a close examination of Calvin's historical context, his writings, and his actions would prove John Calvin to be a man truly committed to the spread of the gospel.

Historical Context

In order to understand John Calvin, or any other historical figure, one must understand the time in which the person lived and worked. Calvin emerged as a Reformation leader in 1536 with the publication of The Institutes of the Christian Religion and remained in leadership until his death in 1564. Thus, Calvin was a generation after Luther, and the Reformation, well entrenched in Germany, was spreading all over Europe. However, there was little organization among the churches that had split with Rome. Historian Owen Chadwick noted that
The problem now was not the overthrow of the papacy, but the construction of new modes of power . . . In breaking down papal authority, the Reformation seemed to have left the authority of the Christian ministry vague and uncertain.[4]

Protestant groups, who had been accustomed to strong central authority in Rome, were now only loosely organized and, though they claimed scripture for their authority, they disagreed on what the scriptures meant with regard to certain doctrines. By the time that Calvin gained prominence in 1536, Protestant churches were in great need of organization and structure in their doctrine and practice.

In addition to the disorganization within, there was a persecution from without. The scattered condition of Protestantism was only worsened by the intense efforts of the Roman Church to eradicate the Protestant movement. Protestant churches were struggling not only for their identity but also for their very survival. Calvin himself had to leave France for personal safety, and he wrote the first edition of the Institutes in response to the ill treatment of French Protestants. Identification with Protestantism brought immediate punishment, including torture and even death.

Obviously, Calvin's era was a time of intense difficulty for Protestant churches. The demands of the day led him to spend a considerable amount of his energy developing a church organization, writing theology, and training ministers. With such pressing needs one might understand if Calvin neglected evangelism or missions. After all, the church itself and its message must first be established. Moreover, preaching Reformation doctrine in areas other than the Protestant cities would mean almost certain death. However, even these pressing needs and problems, which would immobilize many churches today, did not stop the evangelistic efforts of Calvin and his followers.

Calvin's Writings

Calvin's writings on predestination have most often been targeted as unevangelistic and destructive to missionary zeal. Calvin addressed predestination primarily in related parts of his Institutes and in his treatise, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, which J. K. S. Reid called "the longest and most sustained exposition which Calvin wrote on the subject."[5] Dealing with predestination in the Institutes, Calvin does not directly address evangelism specifically, but neither does he describe it as unnecessary. He does, in fact, write several times about the gospel being preached to the masses, resulting in the salvation of the elect and the hardening of the non-elect (III.23.10; II.5.10). In other words, Calvin did not limit the preaching of the gospel to those considered to be elect. He explains his views more fully in his treatise on predestination:
Since we do not know who belongs to the number of the predestined and who does not, it befits us so to feel as to wish that all be saved. So it will come about that, whoever we come across, we shall study to make him a sharer of peace . . . even severe rebuke will be administered like medicine, lest they should perish or cause others to perish. But it will be for God to make it effective in those whom He foreknew and predestined.[6]

Calvin clearly encouraged Christians to be involved in evangelism! "It befits us" to desire all people to be saved. The result of this proper desire should make us try to lead everyone "we come across" to faith in Christ, for that is the only way they could share in peace. This is not to be a half-hearted effort. Christians are to use "even severe rebuke" if necessary to prevent others from ignoring the gospel and perishing. Christians must make the effort to evangelize everyone knowing that only God can save.

Calvin's doctrine of predestination did not make the preaching of the gospel unnecessary; instead, it made preaching necessary because it was by the preaching of the gospel that God had chosen to save the predestined.

Aside from his writings on predestination, Calvin also strongly supported the idea of missions with passages widely scattered throughout his commentaries.[7] Commenting on Micah 2:1-4, Calvin states, "The Kingdom of Christ was only begun in the world when God commanded the gospel to be every where proclaimed and . . . at this day its course is not as yet complete."[8] In other words the Great Commission was not fulfilled by the apostles and, consequently, this mission is still the responsibility of Christians.

Calvin expressed similar views as he commented on 1 Tim. 2:4, saying "there is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception."[9] He is not, of course, saying that everyone in the world would be saved, but that certain people from all parts of the world would be saved. The whole idea of the passage is that God desires "foreign nations" to hear the gospel and to be included in salvation. It is the Christian's duty "to be solicitous and to do our endeavor for the salvation of all whom God includes in his calling."[10]

No one should be denied the opportunity of hearing the gospel proclaimed. Continuing to verse five of the same passage, Calvin writes that those people insult God "who, by their opinion, shut out any person from the hope of salvation."[11] The gospel is to be preached indiscriminately to all people, and the decision about who will believe is to be left to God.

Indeed, Calvin never portrays God as a cruel tyrant grudgingly allowing some to be saved. In a comment on Ezek. 18:23, he states:
God certainly desires nothing more than for those who are perishing and rushing toward death to return to the way of safety. This is why the gospel is today proclaimed throughout the world, for God wished to testify to all the ages that he is greatly inclined to pity.[12]

God desires for men to be saved and by His election has assured that some will be. It is the fact that God will definitely call some that encourages believers to "bestow more toil and exertion for the instruction of rebels," realizing that "our duty is, to be employed in sowing and watering, and while we do this we must look for the increase from God."[13] Clearly, Calvin recognized the need for Christians to exert effort in evangelism in order to be used of God to call out His elect. He saw evangelism as a duty and employment involving "toil and exertion." Such is far from an indifferent attitude toward evangelism.

Calvin's Activity

Perhaps the best evidence of Calvin's concern for missions is the mission activity of the Genevan church under his leadership. Under Calvin's leadership, Geneva became "the hub of a vast missionary enterprise"[14] and "a dynamic center or nucleus from which the vital missionary energy it generated radiated out into the world beyond."[15] Protestant refugees from all over Europe fled to Geneva; they came not merely for safety but also to learn from Calvin the doctrines of the Reformation so they could return home to spread the true gospel. Philip Hughes notes that Geneva became a "school of missions" which had as one of its purposes
to send out witnesses who would spread the teaching of the Reformation far and wide . . . . It [Geneva] was a dynamic centre of missionary concern and activity, an axis from which the light of the Good News radiated forth through the testimony of those who, after thorough preparation in this school, were sent forth in the service of Jesus Christ."[16]

Thus was Calvin's missionary concern reflected in the church he served and the students he taught.

The pastors of Geneva, including Calvin himself, met regularly and kept sporadic notes of their actions in a register, which became the greatest source of information on the missionary activity in Geneva. In April 1555 the Register of the Company of Pastors for the first time listed men who were sent out from Geneva to "evangelize Foreign Parts."[17] The entry that mentioned these men stated that they had been sent out prior to April 1555, and they were already ministering in the Piedmont valleys.[18] More ministers may have been sent out before this time without being recorded in the Register because the notes were not complete and it was often dangerous to record the names of missionaries.

By 1557 it was a normal part of business for the Genevan pastors to send missionaries into France. Robert M. Kingdon called it a "concentrated missionary effort."[19] By 1562, religious wars had broken out in France, and it was no longer safe to record the names of missionaries. However, between 1555 and 1562 the Register records 88 men by name who were sent out from Geneva to different places as "bearers of the gospel."[20]

In reality many more than 88 were sent. In one year, 1561, though the Register mentions only twelve missionaries, other sources indicate that at least 142 missionaries were sent![21] Hundreds of men were sent out, reaching Italy, Germany, Scotland, England, and practically covering France.[22] From all over Europe requests came to Geneva for ministers of the gospel and the Genevan Company of Pastors filled as many as possible. At times even their own churches were deprived of pastors in order to meet the needs of struggling groups abroad.[23] Thus, Geneva, under Calvin's direction, served as the heart of the Reformation in Europe, pumping out the lifeblood of trained ministers into all areas.

In addition to the extensive work in Europe, one group of Genevan missionaries was sent to Brazil. The Register simply states that on Tuesday, August 25, 1556, M. Pierre Richier and M. Guillaume were sent as ministers to Brazil. "These two were subsequently commended to the care of the Lord and sent off with a letter from this church."[24] The ministers were sent in response to a request from Admiral Coligny, a Huguenot leader. They were to serve as chaplains for a group of Protestants who were going to Brazil to establish a colony, and they would have opportunity to instruct the natives in the gospel.[25] One man who went on the trip wrote that, upon receiving the request,
the church of Geneva at once gave thanks to God for the extension of the reign of Jesus Christ in a country so distant and likewise so foreign and among a nation entirely without knowledge of the true God.[26]

Sadly, the mission was not successful because the leader of the group betrayed the Protestants. Some were killed, and others were sent back to Europe. Though the mission failed, it remains "a striking testimony to the far reaching missionary vision of Calvin and his Genevan colleagues."[27]


Though evangelism was not discussed as much in the sixteenth century as it would be later, Calvin proved himself to be genuinely concerned for the spread of the true gospel. In light of the situation of the world around him, his mission activity, and that of his colleagues, is truly admirable. His writings also show that he believed the gospel should be preached to all. The missionary endeavors of the Genevan church especially prove Calvin's commitment to missions. Speaking of these efforts, Philip Hughes states,
Here is irrefutable proof of the falsity of the too common conclusion that Calvinism is incompatible with evangelism and spells death to all missionary enterprise.[28]

Clearly, Calvin must have believed his teachings were compatible with mission work since he was so involved in such work himself. Whether or not one agrees with all of Calvin's views or actions, one must admit the great reformer's teachings (including predestination) do indeed support evangelism and mission work.

Selected Bibliography

Beaver, R. Pierce. "The Genevan Mission to Brazil." In The Heritage of John Calvin, ed. J. H. Bratt, 55-73. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973.

Calvin, John. Calvin's Commentaries. Ephesians - Jude. Wilmington, DE: Associated Publishers and Authors, n.d.

. Calvin's Commentaries. Vol. 7, The Gospels. Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc., n.d.

. Calvin: Commentaries. Edited by Joseph Haroutunian. Vol. 23, The Library of Christian Classics, eds. Baillie, McNeill, Van Dusen. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963.

. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Vols. 20-21, The Library of Christian Classics, eds. Baillie, McNeill, Van Dusen. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.

. Calvin's New Testament Commentaries. The Epistles Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. Edited by David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance. Translated by T. H. L. Parker. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965.

Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God
. Translated by J. K. S. Reid. London: James Clarke and Co. Limited, 1961.

Chadwick, Owen. The Reformation. Vol. 3, The Penguin History of the Church, ed. Owen Chadwick. Pelican Books, 1964; reprint, New York: Penguin Group, Penguin Books, 1990.

George, Timothy. Theology of the Reformers. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988.

Gerstner, John H. A Predestination Primer. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960; reprint, Winona Lake, IN: Alpha Publications, 1980.

Hughes, Philip E. "John Calvin: Director of Missions." In The Heritage of John Calvin, ed. J. H. Bratt, 40-54. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1973.

. ed. and trans. The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966.

Hunter, A. Mitchell. The Teaching of Calvin, A Modern Interpretation. Glasgow: Maclehose, Jackson, and Company, 1920.

James, Frank A., III. "Calvin and Missions." Christian History 5, no. 4 (Fall 1986) : 23.

"It was both 'a horrible decree' and 'very sweet fruit."' Christian History, 5, no. 4 (Fall 1986) : 24-26.

Kingdon, Robert M. "Calvinist Religious Aggression." In The French Wars of Religion, How Important Were Religious Factors?, ed. J. H. M. Salmon, 6-11. Problems in European Civilization, eds. Ralph W. Greenlaw and Dwight E. Lee. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1967.

Kuiper, R. B. God Centered Evangelism. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1961; reprint, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1978.

McGrath, Alister E. A Life of John Calvin, a Study in the Shaping of Western Culture. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1990.

McNeill, John T. The History and Character of Calvinism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Justification by Union with Christ

Justification by Union with Christ
Only Through Living Faith
A Brief Comparison of Calvin’s Institutes with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms regarding the shape of imputation

By Mark Horne

This essay is a brief argument that the soteriology of John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion regarding union with Christ and the imputation of his righteousness is the same as that of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. To give an idea of what I am hoping to provide evidence for, it might be best to start with an example from another area of theology.

Let’s start, then, with the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

As is well known, John Calvin forceably stated that the Lord’s Supper could supply believers with no benefits unless the Lord’s Supper provided Christ himself as the source of those benefits. For example, he writes in his Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of our Lord:
But as the blessings of Jesus Christ do not belong to us at all, unless he be previously ours, it is necessary, first of all, that he be given us in the Supper, in order that the things which we have mentioned may be truly accomplished in us. For this reason I am wont to say, that the substance of the sacraments is the Lord Jesus, and the efficacy of them the graces and blessings which we have by his means. Now the efficacy of the Supper is to confirm to us the reconciliation which we have with God through our Savior’s death and passion; the washing of our souls which we have in the shedding of his blood; the righteousness which we have in his obedience; in short, the hope of salvation which we have in all that he has done for us. It is necessary, then, that the substance should be conjoined with these, otherwise nothing would be firm or certain. Hence we conclude that two things are presented to us in the Supper, viz., Jesus Christ as the source and substance of all good; and, secondly, the fruit and efficacy of his death and passion. This is implied in the words which were used. For after commanding us to eat his body and drink his blood, he adds that his body was delivered for us, and his blood shed for the remission of our sins. Hereby he intimates, first, that we ought not simply to communicate in his body and blood, without any other consideration, but in order to receive the fruit derived to us from his death and passion; secondly that we can attain the enjoyment of such fruit only by participating in his body and blood, from which it is derived.

While a great deal might be said, this much is clear about the shape of Calvin’s view of the efficacy of the Lord’s Supper: in order to receive Christ’s benefits we must receive Christ himself as the only source of them.

The Westminster Confession and Catechisms are quite clear in following precisely Calvin’s thought on this matter. Chapter 27 of the Confession of Faith (”Of the Sacraments”) states in the leading paragraph that, “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace … to represent Christ, and his benefits…” The next chapter, “Of Baptism,” says,
Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church; but also, to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life.

Notice here that baptism “intrafting into Christ” heads the list of benefits. Finally, the same structure, though not as clear, can be detected in the following chapter on the Lord’s Supper, which is for “for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of himself [Christ] in his death; the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers.”

The Shorter Catechism is even more clear. “A sacrament is an holy ordinance … wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers” (q. 92; emphasis added). Thus, we are told that baptism “doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace” (q. 94; emphasis added). And, in the Lord’s Supper, believers are “made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits” (q. 96).

The Larger Catechism’s definition of a sacrament does not maintain the distinct shape we see in the Confession and Catechism, but with question 165 we are back in familiar territory:
Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein Christ hath ordained the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life.

Being ingrafted into Christ leads to forgiveness, regeneration, adoption, and even resurrection.

As in the sacraments, so in salvation generally: John Calvin argued that union with Christ was the key to both justification and sanctification and all other benefits that believers received. He begins his book on the application of the redemption purchased by Christ in this way:
We must now see in what way we become possessed of the blessings which God has bestowed on his only-begotten Son, not for private use, but to enrich the poor and needy. And the first thing to be attended to is, that so long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us. To communicate to us the blessings which he received from the Father, he must become ours and dwell in us. Accordingly, he is called our Head, and the first-born among many brethren, while, on the other hand, we are said to be ingrafted into him and clothed with him, all which he possesses being, as I have said, nothing to us until we become one with him (3.1.1).

As Calvin’s opening statement on how we receive Christ’s benefits this would be enough to show that Calvin taught that union with Christ was the key to sharing in Christ’s righteous status before the Father. However, Calvin does not simply leave his Institutes with this general introductory statement, but rather reiterates the importance of union with Christ. In chapter 11 of Book 3, Calvin begins his discussion of justification by saying:
I trust I have now sufficiently shown how man’s only resource for escaping from the curse of the law, and recovering salvation, lies in faith; and also what the nature of faith is, what the benefits which it confers, and the fruits which it produces. The whole may be thus summed up: Christ given to us by the kindness of God is apprehended and possessed by faith, by means of which we obtain in particular a twofold benefit; first, being reconciled by the righteousness of Christ, God becomes, instead of a judge, an indulgent Father; and, secondly, being sanctified by his Spirit, we aspire to integrity and purity of life.

Here it is laid out for us. Faith is given to us by God so that we may be united to ["apprehend"] Christ and thus be both justified and sanctified.

Calvin goes on in the next sentences to point out that he dealt with sanctification first before justification. He could have, by his own account, dealt with them in either order, and chose sanctification as the first topic for pedagogical reasons. But this certainly shows that, for Calvin, there was no logical precedence to justification. Both benefits are necessary parts of the Christian life but neither depends on the other. Rather both depend on union with Christ.

If possible, Calvin becomes even more explicit while refuting Osiander. Speaking of the righteousness we have from Christ, he writes,
I acknowledge that we are devoid of this incomparable gift until Christ become ours. Therefore, to that union of the head and members, the residence of Christ in our hearts, in fine, the mystical union, we assign the highest rank, Christ when he becomes ours making us partners with him in the gifts with which he was endued. Hence we do not view him as at a distance and without us, but as we have put him on, and been ingrafted into his body, he deigns to make us one with himself, and, therefore, we glory in having a fellowship of righteousness with him.

Union with Christ, to reiterate the obvious, has “highest rank” in Calvin’s soteriology according to his Institutes. A great deal more evidence could be cited, but since I know of no alleged counter-evidence, I shall leave the Institutes and turn to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

In chapter 11 of the Confession of Faith, entitled “of justification” we find more than once a phrase that seems to be parallel to the idea in the sacraments of Christ and his benefits. We do not merely receive Christ’s righteousness but Christ and his righteousness.
  • Paragraph 1: Christ’s obedience and satisfaction are imputed to those who are “receiving and resting on him and his righteousness.”
  • Paragraph 2–”Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification.”
  • Paragraph 4–”God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect,[11] and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification: nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.” Here, one is justified when and because one is united to Christ by the Spirit
Turning from the Confession, let us look at the Westminster Larger Catechism:
Q69: What is the communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ?
A69: The communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ, is their partaking of the virtue of his mediation, in their justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever else, in this life, manifests their union with him [emphasis added].

Questions 70 and 71 of the Larger Catechism speak of Christ’s righteousness being imputed without explicit mention of Christ himself being received of believers being united to him. But then:
Q72: What is justifying faith?
A72: Justifying faith is a saving grace,… whereby he … receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness…

Q73: How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?
A73: Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God … only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applies Christ and his righteousness.

The Shorter Catechism presents the same pattern, though it does not reiterate the statement of “Christ and his righteousness.” Question 33 mentions only receiving Christ’s righteousness without mentioning also receiving or being united to Christ. However, notice the ordo here:
Q29: How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ?
A29: We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us by his Holy Spirit.

Q30: How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?
A30: The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling [Emphasis added].

Q31: What is effectual calling?
A31: Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby … he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

Whether or not each individual question asserts “Christ and his righteousness” in every case is irrelevant. The Westminster Shorter Catechism is clear and consistent with the Larger Catechism and the Confession: The only people who receive/have imputed to them Christ’s righteousness are those who receive/are united to Christ only by faith. For the Shorter Catechism, the reason why the effectually called are justified is precisely because they are united to Christ by faith in that calling.

The Westminsterian “order of salvation” is that of John Calvin. One is united by Christ by faith and, in Christ, one is both justified and sanctified. Bot justification and sanctification are manifestations of union with Christ (Larger Catechism #69).