New Perspective on Luther?

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I must admit that when I first became a Christian, Luther was a hero to me. He was my “go-to”, and I chose to read his works over really any other. Luther is one of those types of writers who is “in your face”, not afraid to call the Pope antichrist, etc. The youthful rebel in me loved that about him!

I still enjoy Luther, but as of late, he has fallen on hard times. In fact, he has seemed to come under fire by everyone: theologians, historians, etc. The critiques generally tend to view Luther’s theology of justification and salvation as too individualistic, nominalist, too legalistic in its emphasis. Historians especially have tended to place Luther’s view of salvation in the context of his overbearing father. They say Luther had “daddy issues”, and that he viewed God through that lens: God is this sort of overbearing, mean Father who demands perfect holiness. But, Jesus obeyed perfectly in our place, and by faith we get his record placed over our bad record, and thus we’re “saved”. Put another way, Dad is mad, but brother Jesus comes and gives Dad the obedience required, and he isn’t mad anymore. Because of this view of Luther, many theologians have critiqued his view of salvation as being simply too nominalist, “on paper only”, not realistic enough. Can God accept someone “on paper only”? And is God really that mad?

Certainly this picture is problematic. But is this really what Luther thought of salvation? Not really. In fact, there has been revived study of Luther which has tried to read him honestly. Lutheran Jordan Cooper explains this new reading:

In the mid-1970s a group of Finnish scholars, led by Tuomo Mannermaa, began to reevaluate Luther’s understanding of justification in the midst of an ecumenical dialogue between the Lutheran Church of Finland and the Russian Orthodox Church. Seeking to find common ground among the two theological traditions, the doctrine of theosis became a central point of discussion, especially in relation to the theology of Luther. Maannerma’s influential work, Christ Present in Faith,80 argues that Luther’s view of justification was not one of mere imputation; this was an innovation of Luther’s disciple Melanchthon. For Luther, justification includes an indwelling of the person of Christ. Christ is not outside of the believer in a law court, placing his works before the Father to satisfy the demands of divine justice. Christ, as the righteous God-man, imputes his righteousness through divine indwelling. The Righteousness of One: An Evaluation of Early Patristic Soteriology in Light of the New Perspective on Paul (p. 41).

What Cooper is meaning to communicate here is that for Luther, salvation is not simply this exchange of records: I’m bad, but Jesus is good and gives me his good report card. No, actually, for Luther, salvation in essence consists of union with Christ which entails death to sin and participation in his resurrection life. 

In fact, when one examines Luther’s works, especially his Freedom of the Christian and his famous Galatians commentary, there is simply no talk about extrinsic record-giving. Jesus doesnt appease the angry God by offering his perfect report card. When read carefully, Luther is found to say repeatedly that salvation is by faith alone because faith grasps the whole Christ, with everything that is his. 

Cooper illustrates from one of Luther’s early sermons called “Two Kinds of Righteousness”:

[In this sermon Luther] uses the imagery of a bride and her groom: “Just as a bridegroom possesses all that is the bride’s and she all that is his- for the two have all things in common because they are one flesh . . . so Christ and the church are one spirit.” Luther is drawing upon the common theme of his mystical heritage that the believer’s soul is united to and participates in the being of God…

Through faith, the believer is not only given Christ’s benefits, but also Christ himself: “Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all the he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours.”… Luther does not connect Christ’s righteousness to his active obedience to the law. Throughout this sermon, legal metaphors of salvation are far from dominant. He expresses his thoughts primarily with participationist language. Rather than righteousness being imputed over the believer’s own sin, Luther describes this righteousness as that which is “an infinite righteousness, one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ; [the Christian] is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he.” The believer is not condemned because he participates in Christ’s person. As one who is divine, Christ does not and cannot sin. Thus, through the Christian’s participation in divinity, sin is not imputed to him. Luther sees Christ’s righteousness not merely as a legal covering, but as that which effects sanctification: “Christ daily drives out the old Adam more and more in accordance with the extent to which faith and knowledge of Christ grow. For alien righteousness is not instilled all at once, but it begins, makes progress, and is finally perfected at the end through death.” The believer is gradually perfected in his union with Christ until his Adamic nature is no longer present. Luther sees justification as a progressive act of participation in divinity, not merely an instantaneous forensic reality. (44-46)

So then, legal categories are “far from dominant”; in fact, union with Christ is paramount in Luther’s theology. It is not Jesus giving us some detached record of righteousness. Rather, by our union with Christ, we are joined to the one who has “infinite righteousness”. Imputation is there, but not out of the context of union with Christ. Union is rather “the ontological grounding for imputation and forgiveness” (62). In fact,  Cooper goes so far as to say, “imputation and renewal are so connected that Luther is comfortable at times using progressive language in reference to justification. One’s sanctification is, in a sense, bringing about the reality of the past event of justification” (52-53).

Taking all of this into account, Cooper goes on to argue that Luther is really in line with patristic thought and much of the medieval mysticism of his day. We cannot forget that Luther was in fact a medieval theologian, unlike Calvin and the other Reformers. Cooper goes on to explain that Luther’s thought, rather than being nominalist and legalistic in its emphasis, is right in line with medieval theologians like Athanasius: “along with Athanasius, Luther can speak of salvation in participationist terms (i.e. sharing in divinity through union with Christ) as well as in forensic language (i.e. Athanasius’ language of paying the “debt of death” all men owe to God because of Adam’s transgression) (64).

I could go on here, but when one really examines Luther’s early thought, his language is much more participationist, and ontological than is really credited to him.

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Evangelicalism’s “Missing” Doctrine: Union with Christ

I am currently reading a massively important work entitled: One With Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation by Marcus Johnson.

In his introduction, Johnson says that the doctrine of union with Christ — which was a common doctrine not only in the early patristic fathers, but also in the Reformation theologians — is much neglected in today’s evangelical circles.

Johnson says,

In textbooks, sermons , and classrooms, salvation is often conceived of as the reception of something Christ has acquired for us rather than as the reception of the living Christ. In other words, salvation is described as a gift to be apprehended rather than the apprehension of the Giver himself. To put it yet another way, the gospel is portrayed as the offer of a depersonalized benefit (e.g., grace, justification, or eternal life) rather than the offer of the very person of Christ (who is himself the grace of God, our justification, and our eternal life). (p 17-18)

For Johnson, much of evangelicalism has articulated the gospel, and the benefits therein, in distinction or even isolation to the believer’s union with Christ. For instance, many churches today emphasize the doctrine of imputation — that a believer is declared righteous through the gospel — without at the same time stressing that this righteousness comes from being in Christ. For Johnson, this is a huge misstep. And Johnson brings in the Reformers to underline that this Protestant doctrine is indeed connected to union with Christ:

He quotes Calvin, who says,

[W]e must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore, to share in what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us . . . for, as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. (p 23)

He also quotes Luther:

[F]aith must be taught correctly, namely that by it you are so cemented to Christ that He and you are as one person, which cannot be separated but remains attached to Him forever and declares: “I am as Christ .” And Christ, in turn, says: “I am as the sinner who is attached to me and I to him. For by faith we are joined together into one flesh and bone.” Thus Eph. 5: 30 says: “We are members of the body of Christ , of his flesh and bones,” in such a way that faith couples Christ and me more intimately than a husband is coupled to his wife. (p 22)

The Reformers had a deep and robust doctrine of salvation. But it was a salvation found in Christ. The believer is in Christ, and thus receives all that is his: his righteousness, his Spirit, his justification and vindication, his resurrection, etc.

Johnson also surveys the NT, specifically the Johannine and Pauline corpus, to argue that union with Christ is central to biblical soteriology.

Johnson cites the many times that Paul explains salvation in terms of being “in Christ”:

[We are] justified in Christ (8: 1); glorified in Christ (Rom. 8: 30; 2 Cor. 3: 18); sanctified in Christ (1 Cor. 1: 2); called in Christ (v. 9); made alive in Christ (15: 22; Eph. 2: 5); created anew in Christ (2 Cor. 5: 17); adopted as children of God in Christ (Gal. 3: 26); elected in Christ (Eph 1:4) (p 19)

He also gives examples of the frequent metaphorical imagery found in John’s writing that convey union with Christ:

Jesus is the living water (John 4, 7), the bread of life (John 6: 33, 48), and the one whose flesh and blood are to be consumed for eternal life (John 6: 53– 57); we have eternal life only if we have the Son (1 John 5: 11– 12), we are in the Son— who is true God and eternal life (1 John 5: 20)— and we live through him (1 John 4: 9). Jesus abides in us and we in him (John 6: 56; 15 :4– 7), and God abides in us and we in him through Jesus and the Spirit (1 John 3: 24; 4: 12– 16). We are one with Christ and the Father (John 14: 20; 17: 21– 23). Jesus is the true vine in whom we abide and apart from whom we can do nothing (John 15: 1–5), and he is the resurrection and life in himself (John 11: 25; cf. John 1: 4). (p 20)

Of course we can find this doctrine all across the pages of the NT. But we do find that both Paul and John see salvation in terms of being conjoined to Christ, and receiving his life as our own. We are nothing apart from Christ.

Johnson finishes this introduction, saying this important truth:

The premise of this book is that the primary, central, and fundamental reality of salvation is our union with Jesus Christ, because of which union all the benefits of the Savior flow to us, and through which union all these benefits are to be understood. (p 29)

I will write more on this work; but suffice to say, I think that this book is extremely important. And, I think that evangelical theology is indeed missing this doctrine, especially when we think about the ramifications of this doctrine in connection to justification, sanctification and sacraments.

I remember reading both Luther and Calvin on this subject. It is hard to count how many times Luther compared salvation to that of a marital union between the believer and Christ. All that is ours is His, and all that is His or ours. He would often quote Song of Solomon 6:3: I am my beloved’s and he is mine. As long as we are joined to Christ, we are righteous as he is. We are alive as his is.

Calvin often spoke of union with Christ as “being spiritual” in nature. And what he didn’t mean was that we are only grafted into Christ’s soul; instead, what Calvin meant was that by the Spirit, the believer is mysterious conjoined to Christ. Calvin would later connect this doctrine to the Lord’s Supper. In the Supper, the believer is mysteriously taken up by the Spirit into heaven to feed upon Christ. Union with Christ colored everything that Calvin taught.

This is a wonderful doctrine, and one to which we should pay more attention!

Why I won’t convert to Roman Catholicism

In the past 6 months, I’ve read more Catholic theology than I have in my entire life. Now, why did I do that? Well, I did it because, to a large extent, I realized I knew nothing about Roman Catholicism except for the common stereotypes. I only really knew the common Protestant objections: pope, tradition, priests, works, Mary, icons, etc. But I had never really dug into the theology. And so, I bought some works by major Catholic theologians.

I have to say, I really enjoyed reading them. At the end of the day, I value theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, Scott Hahn, Thomas Aquinas, Robert Barron, et al. For all my differences, these guys really center on the big picture stuff. So I really enjoyed them.

I also really enjoyed getting to know the distinctives. Papal authority, priesthood, sacerdotalism, infused (vs imputed) righteousness, etc. This was an area which I had simply never studied. I feel better off for having studied these theologians.

With that said: I really don’t plan on converting to Roman Catholicism. I could never convert in good conscience. I want to list 3 reasons why I wouldn’t ever convert:

Exclusivity: 

The first reason I could not convert is because of how exclusive Roman Catholicism is. I’ve read of a number of stories from Roman converts, and the stories are all relatively similar. These people are happy Protestants, until one day, they realize the wide history of the Catholic church. They realize the size, the teaching, the rich theology. And they realize that their thinly-veiled Protestantism just can’t stand up to it. And so they switch. But what most if any of those converts do not realize, is that when they switch, they are saying something very negative about their past experience as Protestants: namely, that it wasn’t a valid or true Christian experience. Peter Leithart explains it this way:

Here’s the question I would ask to any Protestant considering a move: What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople? Are you willing to start going to a Eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome? How is that different from Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentiles? Are you willing to say that every faithful saint you have known is living a sub-Christian existence because they are not in churches that claim apostolic succession, no matter how fruitful their lives have been in faith, hope, and love? For myself, I would have to agree that my ordination is invalid, and that I have never presided over an actual Eucharist. To become Catholic, I would have to begin regarding my Protestant brothers as ambiguously situated “separated brothers,” rather than full brothers in the divine Brother, Jesus. To become Orthodox, I would likely have to go through the whole process of initiation again, as if I were never baptized. And what is that saying about all my Protestant brothers who have been “inadequately” baptized? Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that? I’m too catholic to do that. (source)

For a Protestant to make the move, they must by definition invalidate everything they had experienced before. That is simply not catholic in the real sense of the word: that is exclusivism. Peter Leithart goes so far to say that it is nothing else than sectarianism. To convert would be to say that my prior conversion was sub-biblical, that my baptism invalid, that my whole life was in some form out of the will of God. There is really nothing “Catholic” about that.

History: 

Of all that I’ve read, the main reason people convert is because of the deep history of the Catholic church. Put simply, Protestants do not understand the history of the church, and they are shocked by the long history of the Roman Catholic church. And for them, when they are exposed to this history, and the relatively shorter history of Protestantism, they opt for the older church.

The problem here is two-fold:

First, the history of the church is much less clear than Roman Catholics would like us to realize. The reality is that the early church did look different from the Protestantism of today; but it also looked different from the Roman Catholic church of today! Anyone who claims that the early church was the same, or even similar, to what it is today, is oversimplifying things. Many people convert because they feel that history is settled: the church of the apostles was Catholic. Not true. It is a historic fact that the Roman bishop (pope) did not have supremacy until the 3-4th century (link). It is a historic fact that transubstantiation was not dogmatically formulated until the medieval period. To make any claim on the early church is to muddy the water.

Second, and more important, many look to the early church as if they had it all figured out. The early church fathers were closer to the apostles, yes, but they did not have everything figured out. For instance, there was no formulated atonement theory until Anselm. The Trinity was not articulated until the 5th century. For goodness sake, it wasn’t until the reformation period that the church really began to think about and formulate the doctrine of justification!

My point here is that while we owe much to the early church, we shouldn’t glorify the period as if they had it all figured out. There was much more to be understood in terms of doctrine and practice. Both Calvin and Luther quoted the early church fathers frequently, and saw themselves in historical continuity to them. They wanted to reform and develop the Catholic churchnot brake from it. They wanted to be a voice in line with saints before them. This is why I see my Protestantism as connected to that wide history of the early church. You should too.

Theology:

Lastly, I am not a Catholic because of the theological distinctives which make up Roman Catholicism. This should be no surprise. I do not believe that their theology, particularly of church authority and justification, is correct. By church authority, I mean papal authority. Their claim that the bishop of Rome has universal jurisdiction is, in my book, historically inaccurate, and biblically unfounded. More particularly, papal infallibility is unsafe, because it binds the consciences of the laity to one man.

Also, I believe their theology of infusion conflates justification and sanctification. What this means is that justification, for Rome, is the infusion of grace into the soul, which can ebb and flow, and can ultimately be lost by mortal sin. I think this is a grave error. This robs the believer of assurance, which is a biblical concept (Rom 8:15). And it places the believer’s final justification on their own shoulders rather than Christ’s. This, to me, is a huge deal.

Carl Trueman says this of Roman Catholicism:

The insight of the Reformation on assurance is key, theologically and pastorally. And… that it is one thing that every convert to Roman Catholicism must lose…That is a very high price to pay. Speaking for myself, all of the liturgical beauty of Rome, all of the tradition, all of the clarity of the authority structure (and the clarity is often, I think, more in the eye of the beholder than the Church itself) cannot compensate for the loss of the knowledge that I know I have been purchased by the precious blood of Christ that conversion to Rome requires (The Creedal Imperative, 125)

Trueman is right on. The owness in Roman Catholicism is on the person, not on Christ. That, to me, is not only unbiblical, but simply devastating. I wouldn’t be able to bear it.

I love much in the Roman Catholic tradition. However, with these reasons in place, I simply couldn’t convert.

If you want further study on this, please read these links, HERE, HERE

Born Under the Law

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One of the most profound truths of the gospel, is that Christ not only took the penalty of our law-breaking, but he also fulfilled the law on our behalf during his life on this earth.

Christ himself said as much in Matthew 3:15, that he came to “fulfill all righteousness”. Christ said this just before he was baptized. John the baptist, rightfully noticed that Jesus didn’t have to be baptized, because he was perfectly righteous. Yet, Jesus didn’t do it for himself — he did it to fulfill a righteousness that we did not have. Paul also expounds on this fact. He says in Galatians 4:4 that Jesus came at God’s predetermined time, and he was “born of a woman, [and] born under the law“. This is a profound verse. As God the Son, Jesus was the very revelation of the law. His very character helped shape the very giving of the Mosaic Law. As such, this means that Jesus was not forcibly subject to the Mosaic Law, as humans are. Mankind is part of God’s creation, being created in his image; and therefore we are held accountable to reflect his character and righteousness through obedience to him. However, Jesus is already the very radiance of the Father (Heb 1:3), being the second person of the Trinity, and therefore already contains the righteousness demanded in the law. So Jesus never had to submit to the law. Instead, Jesus willingly, voluntarily, humbly, subjected himself in the incarnation to full obedience to the Law.

And Jesus didn’t do it for no reason, or for show. Jesus subjected himself to the Law, in order that he might “redeem those who were under the law” (Gal 4:5). In other words, Jesus came to fulfill the law’s demands on behalf of sinful men, that they might be counted righteous. He took the full weight of the burden of the commandments, not for himself, but for us. And all that we might be delivered from the curse of the law (Gal 3:10-14). Jesus was perfectly obedient, as a disciple of the law, that we might be counted as righteous disciples of the law. As Paul says later in 2 Corinthians 5:21, that we might become “the righteousness of God” in him.

Martin Luther says of Galatians 4,

Christ, a divine and human person, begotten of God without beginning and born of the virgin at the appointed time, came not to make a law, but to feel and suffer the extreme terrors of the law and to overcome it, so that he might completely abolish it. He was not a teacher of the law but an obedient disciple of the law, so that by his obedience he might redeem those who were under the law. He was the one acted upon, and not an agent, in respect to the law. He bore its condemnation and delivered us from its curse.

Luther makes a helpful distinction here that many misunderstand. While Jesus did teach the law, this was not his main purpose in the incarnation. In other words, Jesus was not just “a good moral teacher”, as many say. Jesus himself denied this claim. His main mission was to deliver those who were under the law. And he did this by obeying its demands perfectly, and by dying under its curse — this was all done for us. Luther finishes his section on this verse, saying, “to teach the law and to perform miracles are particular benefits of Christ, [but are] not his main reason for coming into the world”. Christ came to to deliver us from condemnation, and he did it through representative obedience and vicarious death.

Phillip Ryken expounds on this principle further, saying,

[Christ] was born “under the law”. By his birth he was required to keep the whole Torah, which he did with total perfection. Jesus kept the whole law for his people. He was circumcised on the eighth day, as the law required. He never broke even one of the Ten Commandments. He followed the biblical pattern of worship. He went to Jerusalem to keep the feasts. He celebrated Passover. He did everything the law required.

Jesus even died under the law. For God’s Son, coming under the law included accepting the death penalty his people deserved for breaking it. This is what Paul explained in chapter 3[:13], when he said, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for  us”. When Christ came under the law, he also came under its curse. He not only kept the whole law for his people, but also suffered the punishment due to their sins.

Oddly, many believe that Jesus was opposed to religion. This isn’t really true. Grace and religion (earning God’s love through strict obedience) may be opposed. But this is only because Christ was the perfect law obeyer. He was the perfect Jew. He was the one in whom God was “well pleased” (Mt 3:17). And because of that, we are under grace. Because by virtue of faith in Christ, we receive his perfect obedience and death to the law, thereby being redeemed from the curse of the law.

Why the Gospel is Offensive

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I’ve been studying Paul’s epistle to the Galatians lately. Paul wrote this book to combat a false gospel which had broken out in the church. It was a gospel which preached salvation by works of the law as opposed to Christ alone. It was a gospel which demanded obedience to God in order to be saved. Paul wrote to correct this mindset, and free them (Gal 5:1) from the bondage of legalism. He wanted to them to get the full-orbed theology that is salvation by grace alone. Paul preached a gospel which said that salvation is free because Christ “gave himself for our sins”, and substituted himself for us (Gal 1:3-5). It was a gospel which said that Christ has done all the work, and therefore, we don’t have to do any work. Christ wins our salvation for us.

However, Paul came up with some issues when combating this false gospel. Paul’s reputation was coming under fire by people who were trying to discredit him. Some of Paul’s opponents had accused him of preaching free salvation in order to win “the approval of man” (Gal 1:10), not to serve God. In other words, they accused Paul of watering down his message in order to gain a following. They supposed that Paul made entrance into salvation easy in order to appease his crowds. He wanted them to like him, and so he made the gospel easy to obey.

However, when you think about it a bit more, the biblical gospel of grace, of free salvation, is not all that easy. Yes it is a gospel of grace. Yes, it is a salvation won by the merit of someone else. But it is also a gospel which presupposes man’s utter depravity in sin. It is a gospel which, while preaching freedom, also preaches man’s total bondage to sin (Rom 8:6). It is a gospel which despairs of all of man’s goodness. In this way, then, Paul’s gospel is not easy. It is not a crowd pleaser. And actually, Paul points that out. He asks in Galatians 5:11, if my gospel is such a crowd pleaser, “why am I still being persecuted?”. And in fact, Paul was persecuted severely for the gospel he preached.

Now why is that so? Well, I think it’s clear. It’s easy to be saved. But it is equally hard to admit your need for salvation. As Paul says, before we can be saved, we must be “found to be sinners” that need grace (Gal 2:17)! And it is hard to admit your need for grace.

As Martin Luther said, commenting on this truth:

[Paul] is saying in effect, … By my preaching I do not seek human praise or favor but rather desire to set out the benefit and glory of God…[For] we condemn human free will, strength, wisdom, and righteousness and all religion of human devising. In short, we say that nothing in us can deserve grace and the forgiveness of sins. We preach that we obtain grace only by God’s free mercy, for Christ’s sake… This is not preaching to gain human and worldly favor, for the world can abide nothing less than to hear its wisdom, righteousness, religion, and power condemned; to speak against those mighty and glorious gifts of the world is not to flatter the world but rather to provoke its hatred and indignation. If we speak against men or against anything linked to their glory, we must expect cruel hatred, persecution, excommunication, murder, and condemnation…

I show that people are sinners, unrighteous, wicked, objects or wrath, slaves of the devil, and damned, and that they are not made righteous by what they do or by circumcision, but only by the grace of Christ. Therefore I provoke people’s deadly hate, for… they would rather be praised as wise, righteous, and holy. So this is proof enough that I do not teach human doctrine

The gospel is truly offensive. But it is all the same free! What a paradox!

Why God Saves through the Folly of the Cross

folly of the cross

In his wisdom, and in response our willful rebellion against him, God decided that fallen sinners would be saved, not by worksnot by strengthnot by merit, but through faith alone in Christ alone. As Luther said, God “made all things depend on faith [in Christ] so that whoever has faith has everything, while the one who lacks faith has nothing”. I want to take this post to highlight this fact: God could have chosen to save mankind through any other means. Romans 9:15 tells us that God can have mercy on whom he wants to have mercy. He can save whomever and however he wants to! And it’s because of the fact that God is God.

So, if God wanted to, he could have decided that only those who were strong enough, or did enough works, or loved him enough, or asked for help, would be saved. Of course, if God had chosen that salvation depended on our own performance, no one would be saved. Paul tells us that no one can outwork their sin debt (Gal 2:16); in fact, without God’s help, we are bound to sin (Rom 3).

But, God did not choose works as the method of salvation. In fact, God chose and ordained that all who want to be saved have to go through Jesus Christ. God chose that sinners would be forgiven and redeemed through Jesus Christ brokenbloodieddying, and weak, on a Roman cross meant for criminals.

This message sounds foolish to the world, because this is not natural to our fleshly minds. Salvation by the merit of Another sounds completely foreign to us. In our own minds, the natural way to salvation would be through strict obedience to a set list of rules. The most natural way to rid ourselves of debt is to pay it off ourselves. The most natural way toward perfect righteousness is to do and say all the right things — to follow the rules perfectly. Instead, God chose to save through the work of Christ. He chose that our debts would be paid in full through Jesus. He chose that our forgiveness would come through Jesus suffering our punishment for us. He chose that our worthiness would come through the perfect righteousness of Christ. God chose that the way of salvation would be upside down. 

But, why did God choose that sinners would be saved through the foolishness of this gospel (1 Cor 1:18)? Why did he choose this method of redemption?

Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that “in the wisdom of God…it pleased [him] through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe…, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:21, 29).

When it comes to God’s redemption of sinners, he wanted to save us through Jesus that we might not boast in ourselves. God wanted to leave no room for pride. And in fact, if God had made salvation available through human works, or adherence to a moral code, or human will power, there would be room for bragging! This would not bring glory to God. This would not bring enjoyment in God. Instead, it would bring glory to the sinner. It would bring attention and honor to those who worked hard enough or did better. But God wanted the glory for his saving of sinners to go to him alone.

So God chose Jesus as the source of salvation, that we might boast in him alone! This is why Paul says, “and because of [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord'” (1 Cor 1:30). Paul then asks, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?…For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor 20, 25).

God didn’t want redeemed sinners to boast and brag about their own ability to save themselves. He wanted all the credit to go to Him! And for that, he chose Christ as the means, that the one who boasts would do it in him. For this, our wisdom is nothing compared to him. And our strength is nothing compared to him.

Thomas Constable said, “God has chosen this method so the glory might be His and His alone.”

And John Calvin rightly says: “Let every thing, therefore, that is at all deserving of praise, be recognized as proceeding from God…of all the blessings that are [given in salvation], we must seek in Christ not the half, or merely a part, but the entire completion…[assigning to Him] exclusively the entire accomplishment of the whole”.

The Reformers on Works-righteousness

“For if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal 2:21).

John Calvin, from his commentary on Galatians, writes,

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Hence it follows, that we are justified by his grace, and, therefore, not by works… If we could produce a righteousness of our own, then Christ has suffered in vain; for the intention of his sufferings was to procure it for us, and what need was there that a work which we could accomplish for ourselves should be obtained from another? If the death of Christ be our redemption, then we were captives; if it be satisfaction, we were debtors; if it be atonement, we were guilty; if it be cleansing, we were unclean. On the contrary, he who ascribes to works his sanctification, pardon, atonement, righteousness, or deliverance, makes void the death of Christ.

Martin Luther, from his commentary, says:

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Is it true that Christ suffered death or not? Did he suffer in vain or not? Unless we are quite mad, we have to answer that he did indeed suffer, not in vain or for himself, but for us… Take the…law, which contains the most perfect religion and the highest service to God — that is, faith, the fear of God, the love of God, and the love of our neighbor — and show me anyone who has been justified by it. It will then be true that Christ died in vain, for anyone who is justified by the law has power to obtain righteousness by himself… If you grant this, it must follow that Christ died in vain… Are we to allow this horrible blasphemy that the divine Majesty, not sparing his own dear Son, but giving him up to death for us all, should not do all these things seriously but as a sort of joke? I would rather see all the saints and holy angels thrown into hell with the devil. My eyes will see only this inestimable price, my Lord and Savior Christ.