We’re coming up on the 504th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. While there were many efforts to make considerable changes to the proliferation of rank heresy in the church before Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and John Calvin, October 31, 1517 marks the point of no return. When Luther posted his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, it set in writing the reality that an impasse had been reached.
Like many names, “Protestant” started as a derogatory term. These people were protesting something, so what was it? And are we still protesting today? These wringers bring us to today’s word.
Protestantism. noun. A church movement beginning in the 16th century that set out to correct the doctrinal and practical errors of the Roman Catholic Church.
While there were many concerns of these rough-housing protesters, two were essential to the Reformation.
First, people are justified before a holy God by faith alone. There is nothing of merit in ourselves that is worthy of saving. To be forgiven our sins, God must act and God must act alone. Faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-10). God grants us faith (or belief) apart from works (Philippians 1:29).
Within Roman Catholicism, to this day, the church officially teaches that baptism as an infant removes the effects of original sin. The only sins for which you are accountable are those you commit from that point forward. When a person exercises faith, God grants you a measure of grace to obey him. You are free to obey him or not, and your standing before him waxes and wanes depending on your level of obedience. Venial sins harm your soul, and mortal sins can in effect undo your justification. Catholics do not believe that God can justify sinners and he himself still be just.
If faith itself is a gift, then what must we do to be saved? We must confess Christ is Lord in faith! Before God grants us saving faith, we act according to our sinful nature. A fish does not have a choice to breath water. A sinner does not have a choice but to live sinfully.
Once we are regenerated, or born again, only then are we able and free to believe in Christ. We are justified by faith alone through grace alone. There is no room for boasting in Reformed theology. And because sinners are justified by faith in the finished work of Christ, we can be truly be justified, and God can still be just. His wrath has been satisfied by another.
Some have argued that God elects those who he foreknows will believe, so he looks down through time and elects those who will summon faith. That's twisted logic. And eventually, everyone who argues that faith is not a gift but something that man must have winds up believing justification by faith alone through sheer logic.
Was there something about the person who believed that deserved saving? Was he smarter than those who didn’t believe? Was he more virtuous? Was it sheer chance? Was he simply more aware of his fallen condition? The most ardent defender of Arminian theology will answer “no” to all of these statements. In principle, people may be Arminian, but in practice, they are Reformed.
Second, the Bible is the final authority for the life and practice of all Christians in every period of time across all cultures. Rome upholds Scripture as authoritative in tandem with tradition. They claim the tradition to be apostolic, but the Pope can also add to this tradition through declarations. For instance, the immaculate conception of Mary was not dogmatic (official church teaching) until 1854. Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven wasn’t official until 1950.
Good grief, dispensationalism is older than Mary’s assumption.
Protestants do not believe in nuda scriptura, or “nothing but Scripture.” Sola Scriptura is a technical term meaning that Scripture alone is the final arbiter of God’s revealed truth. Tradition has a place in the church, but it is secondary. Reason has a place in the church, but it secondary.
Any novel doctrine must be compatible with the clear teaching of Scripture and should be necessarily suspect. Roman Catholics will tell you that doctrines such as purgatory and the immaculate conception were just old doctrines with recent formulations. There is a glimmer of truth in that, but these doctrines were not widely accepted. That’s also a terrible test of truth. Reformers refuted these ideas 300-400 years before their dogmatic formulations.
The Reformation spawned a series of reforms within the Catholic Church itself. From 1545-1563, Catholics held the Council of Trent. It began as a response to the critiques of the Reformers. But it was at this council that the bishops restated their opposition to justification by faith alone, reinforcing Catholic belief that grace cooperates with works for salvation.
Trent also reinforced the authority of tradition as equal to the authority of Scripture. Catholics were equally bound to what the Pope said as to what God said.
Trent confirmed the doctrine of transubstantiation of the eucharist, or the “real presence” of the body and blood of Christ in the mass. Instead of a memorial meal, despite physical appearances, bread becomes flesh and wine becomes blood. The mass is a true re-sacrifice of Christ every time is is performed.
1,000 words is a hysterical attempt at summarizing the Protestant faith and the primary components of the Reformation. But all this is to say that we can take the clarity of our beliefs for granted if we forget that real people fought real battles, some even being burned alive or drawn and quartered, for the truth of the word of God.
The Reformation was not so neat and tidy as we often explain it. There were fits and starts. There were a variety of responses to the Catholic doctrines and practices. Sometimes people even got a little savage. One Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, helped establish laws to drown adults who wanted to be re-baptized because they no longer held to infant baptism.
Luther did not discover justification by faith alone for the first time. Augustine, in the 300s, did not discover it, either. It’s not too much to say that Abraham, whose faith was counted as righteousness, did not discover it, either.
Truth is not discovered. Truth is revealed.
Many parts of life are like a kaleidoscope. You hold the tube up to your eye, give the end a twist, and the same pieces take a new shape. You can do this several times before you see the same configuration of shapes again.
It’s not exactly like that, but the theology of the atonement has many different shapes to it. That shouldn’t surprise us with something so awesome and majestic. The atonement is what took place at the crucifixion of Christ. There are a few different “theories” of exactly what took place at the atoning moment. The two dominant theories of the atonement are substitutionary penal atonement and Christus Victor. We’ll look at one this week and the other next week.
At the heart of substitutionary penal atonement is that Christ stood in our place, hence, substitution. To give a little bit more direction to the idea, there is another word that hones in on the central theme of substitution, or what actually makes the atonement “substitutionary.”
Vicarious. adj. Done on behalf of another or in the place of another.
In the atonement, Christ died to satisfy the wrath of God against rebellious sinners. We weren’t just saved from our sin, but we were saved from the necessary fate of all those in active rebellion against the Creator: eternal separation from the mercy and grace of God.
In Romans 5, Paul goes to great lengths to identify the vicarious nature of Christ’s sacrifice. He says, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (vv.6-8).
Notice: Christ died for the ungodly, and again, Christ died for us. The Greek word used is hyper, which quite literally means “on behalf of” or “for the sake of”. Christ died on the cross on our behalf and for our sake. He bled and died to satisfy divine justice on evildoers. And because of his perfectly obedient life, he was in fact able to die for us.
In 1 Peter 3:18 we read, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” The righteous died for (or hyper) the unrighteous. It was through dying and being resurrected that his righteousness became ours.
Later, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The vicarious nature of the atonement was such that by dying on our behalf, our sin became his and his righteousness became ours.
The Old Testament sacrificial system did not take away sins. It simply reminded the people of their sin and God’s holiness, as well as look forward to the day that God would once and for all deal with sin decisively.
The author of Hebrews tells us, “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:1-4).
If the sacrifices in the tabernacle and the temple were effective, they would only have had to have been offered one time. The blood of animals, however, are not sufficient for the task. There would have to be another.
Later in v.10, Hebrews tells us, “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Finally, there was an offering or a sacrifice that could do what the blood of bulls and goats could not. There was perfect blood that could satisfy a just God’s wrath against evil and offer pardon for guilty sinners. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (v.14).
Through the vicarious nature of the atonement, Christ is the final offering for sin. There is nothing more to be done. The vicarious work of Christ is how we understand, among other kaleidoscopic realities, the redemption of our souls.
While that may be central and primary is seeing why Christ had to die, Scripture itself speaks of other effects of the atonement. To Christus Victor we turn our attention next week.
Humans have a fascination with the end of the world. That partly must be because we’re sentient creatures, the image of God, and therefore intuitively understand that the universe is headed somewhere. By “headed somewhere” we mean that there is a divine purpose to everything.
In Greek philosophy, there are two ways that the universe could have gone: cosmos and chaos. The universe is a cosmos, meaning that there is a clear order to how it works. There are laws of physics and laws of nature. Contrast that with chaos, which to understand today, look no further than western civilization.
So we live in a cosmos. Everything is headed somewhere. There is a purpose. Times and epochs have beginning and endings. That must mean that this time or epoch has an ending. And meaning is intimately tied up in how things end. A marriage that ends only because of the death of a spouse is not summed up as a tragedy but as a good marriage.
Scripture gives us information about how things will ultimately end up. But it doesn’t usually do so in a straightforward fashion with erudite and sophisticated essays. When it comes to the end of things, Scripture often sticks a specific form of literature. It’s full of vivid imagery and metaphor (read: not boring). And if we pigeonhole that literature into what we wish it said instead of what it does say, we will make all sorts of silly conclusions. Which brings us to today’s word.
Apocalyptic. Adjective. A genre of literature having to do with the revelation of unseen divine behavior or workings outside of human control.
The Bible is full of apocalypses. In the book of Isaiah, many call chapters 24-27 “Isaiah’s little apocalypse.” The book of Daniel, which even though it does have sections of storytelling, is an apocalypse. Sections of the gospels take the form of apocalyptic literature. And of course, when most Christians think of apocalypse, they think of the whole book of Revelation.
If anyone calls it Revelations, let him be anathema.
Popular notions of “the apocalypse” are of the end of the world, scorching heat, and death as far as the eye can see. Natural disasters take over land and sea, and bodies are strewn throughout the streets.
And while biblical apocalypses contain elements of those things, they are not the primary focus of the texts. The biblical apocalypses are concerned primarily, and almost solely, with one thing: the sovereignty of God.
If you read Daniel and look for Russia, Biden, or any number of contemporary entities, you’ll either be disappointed or have your own show on TBN at 3:00am.
If you read Revelation and look for God’s total control over where things are headed, which if we’re honest, never look that good, then you’ll have your spine straightened and your knees strengthened.
Things may look bad, but they’re never as bad as they should be. Things may look worse than yesterday, but the God of yesterday is the God of today and the God of tomorrow.
When you read Isaiah’s little apocalypse, you read about what God is going to do. Wealth will no longer be a means of safety. The earth will be made desolate. All of this is in graphic detail, and it’s because of God’s judgment on Israel for their faithlessness. The land will look like a field after harvest: bare. Israel needs some explanation for why they’re in the position they’re in. In other words, they need to see behind the curtain. They need to know that God is in control.
Daniel is often divided into two sections: chapters 1-6 and 7-12, but the book is more interconnected than that. Even if it mixes storytelling and apocalypse throughout, it always deals with these “kingdoms” that will fall. Daniel even received interpretations of the dreams he had, which reinforced what he saw behind the curtain.
In Matthew 24-25, we read the same kind of imagery. The sky falls, the land is scorched, and people die. But those are the consequence of wickedness taking over the world. Jesus even quoted Daniel.
Sometimes people ask, “What’s the point of living like a Christian now if everything just gets destroyed and things are perfected in the age to come?” Funny you should ask, because it seems as though Jesus knew what was in the heart of man.
Matthew 25 consists of a few parables that deal with the unexpected nature of the incoming of the kingdom of God. The theme of them all is consistent: be ready. There will come a day when the sheep and goats will wind up in different places as a consequence of their lives lived now. Live like a Christian now because Jesus said to. Is there a better reason?
Revelation becomes more clear when it’s read in light of the previous biblical apocalypses. Beyond Isaiah and Daniel, there are bounties of apocalyptic sections in Ezekiel, Haggai, and Zechariah. You’ll come across the same imagery and many allusions from those books in Revelation. Suddenly, the scales fall from your eyes. Revelation is no longer a primer in astrophysics.
Revelation gives us an explanation of why the world is the way it is. But, it does this by means of perhaps the clearest, most awe-inspiring picture of the way things really are in heaven. Chapter 5 is like standing in the place where the ocean meets the beach, and you slowly begin to take a step backward. You see things now that were only in your periphery before. You keep taking steps backward, and you begin to see things more and more awesome. This is the throne room of God.
In that throne room, seals are opened on a scroll. Every time a seal is broken, something happens on earth. And those things sound a lot like Old Testament apocalypses. That tells us that what happens here on earth has been decided in heaven.
So when we read biblical apocalypses, we don’t need to be afraid or look for politicians or Communists. We need to look for God.
In one of my favorite television comedies, there is an episode where a cult wants to rent a public park to host a group meeting. They want this park so they can wait for Zorp the Surveyor to return, to melt everyone’s faces, and subsequently to destroy the world. The thing is that they’ve rented the public park many times only to have their eschatological prophecies thwarted. But to appear rational to the public, the name the group gave themselves was The Reasonablists.
Since the Enlightenment, reason and faith have been seen, at least in the public sphere, as at loggerheads with each other. You can have one or the other, but not both, they say. Oil and water. But is this really the case, or is it a tactic used to downplay religion’s place in public? Has reason become religion? Do religious people, by extension, not use reason in the formation of their beliefs? Historically, at least within Western Christian thought, reason and faith, though not identical, were siblings. They came from the same family.
To add some brio to the blog, today I’m going to define a word that is something to reject.
Fideism. Noun. One must ascent to Christian truth by faith alone and reject reason and evidence as necessary components of theological knowledge.
You’ll find all sorts of forms of fideism. For some, fideism relates to all truth in every field of knowledge. 2+2=4 on faith alone. For others, fideism only extends to the theological, moral, or philosophical. This is a circular loop. Fideism in the theological realm, even if we say is rooted in authoritative Scripture, can’t help but be circular and somewhat arbitrary. Do you think Christians disagree now?
Fideism is rooted in authority. So in one sense, all Christians are fideists. We believe in one supreme authority, God himself. And from him comes all truth, and we are obligated to believe all that God has said. But to jump to the conclusion that reason, therefore, is unnecessary, denies how God conveys truth.
What fideism does do is show the limits of human knowledge. There is a sense in which everything we “know”, especially in the scientific realm, is accepted on faith. For instance, we see gravity at work in the tides and kids falling off of bicycles, but ne’er a soul has seen gravity itself. This is how science works. People make observations and try to repeat them. That’s the best we can do. How many other scientific theories have been corrected or discarded?
But here we see the limits of fideism proper. Scientific theories are corrected or discarded because of empirical evidence, or reason.
But what about theological convictions? Do we need reason to believe in every doctrine?
In order to believe what God says is true, you must first prove that God exists. Do we believe that God exists on faith alone, or has God given us evidence of his existence, his authority, and therefore our obligation to obey him?
At this point the Christian turns to Scripture. The skeptic says, “We haven’t even gotten to 500 words yet, and you’re already using circular logic.” It’s at this point I say, “Your logic is circular unless there is an authoritative point of origin for all ideas.”
Paul wrote in Romans 1:20, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse”
The very nature of God is revealed in the cosmos. We see God’s power and divinity in the expanse of the sky as well as in the precision of microbiology.
Think about what Paul is saying. You can know that God exists. You don’t have to take the existence of God on faith. In fact, every single one of us has no excuse for denying the rationality and reasonableness of the existence of God.
Engage your senses. Use your mental faculties. What’s more reasonable, that all physical matter comes from nothing and nothing made it, or that all physical matter comes nothing and a being outside of physicality made it? Which one actually requires a healthy amount of faith? To say that something came from nothing is an assault on reason and logic. The person who believes that something came from nothing is the one rejecting intellectual honesty.
There are many philosophical proofs for the existence of God. For some examples, Thomas Aquinas had “five proofs” for God’s existence.
1. If you try to follow the chain reaction of events that leads creation to this moment, there must be an “unmoved mover” who initiated movement. Creation duplicates itself, but it could not have made itself.
2. The cosmos operates by cause and effect, which we can witness. What was the initial cause?
3. If one person or object dies or is destroyed, the rest of the world does not die or get destroyed along with it. Therefore, it is possible that everything could stop existing, yet it doesn’t. God must continue to hold creation with purpose.
4. Humans make judgments on truth and beauty. Therefore, there is a standard outside of ourselves that has been imposed on us in the essence of who we are.
5. The world has a clear design to it. This is true because inanimate objects have no intellect yet behave a certain way. Rain does not turn to snow because it wants to. Magnets do not attract metals because they made a choice. There is a great designer to the cosmos that has set rules for operation in place.
And because we can know that God exists, we can and must take reason and faith as siblings that mutually inform the other. Proofs for the existence of God do not lead anyone to salvation, but that’s not Paul’s point in Romans 1. His point is actually that we have rejected reason and logic, and that is why we turn from God and make a law for ourselves.
But thank God that not only has he given us proof of his existence, but in his Son and his substitutionary death for us, he has also given us evidence of his mercy and justice.