Halfway out of Rome into full Gospel Liberty.
Progress from Luther's Partial Coming out of Rome
By Rick Friedrich
While the Reformation did not begin with Martin Luther, or did it end with him, he nevertheless did contribute an enormous amount of influence upon the Western world for good. The story of Luther's progress out of Roman superstition into the Gospel and sound reason is well known to most people and is worthy of study. What we wish to do here is to consider that the restoration of good news of Jesus Christ not only received a revival before Luther but continued onward beyond him in his day and for centuries after.
Luther's influence crushed numerous superstitions and blasphemies in the Roman Catholic Church's system in relation to idolatry in worship, practice, and the office of the Popes and priests. Luther rebuked the godlessness in Rome and the injustice of the feudal system of government it held the world in bondage to. Luther reestablished the role of justification by faith as opposed to salvation by self-righteous deal-making through observance of ordinances and self-efforts to earn one's salvation through external and internal works. Luther also restored confidence in the biblical authority over tradition. He pushed forward many related reforms and numerous others died to further this cause.
The truth did not begin with Luther and no one should assume he was an infallible standard of truth or example. His life and words point us to the bible for the answer, and there we look to find the truth that will set us free. He also qualified the method of believing in the Bible, which was the authority of Reason to guide the process of evaluating the Bible and decision-making in life in the following famous statement: "Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason--I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other--my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen." Commonsense Realism, plain reason, and Conscience was therefore his absolute authority which he could not contradict. These compelled him to believe the Bible as the word of God. Without this there was no way to evaluate the testimony of scripture over and against that of tradition and the claims of others. The Bible is known as an authority because God gave us Reason to know it and to evaluate all truth claims. Without Reason there is no way to make any sense of the Bible, apply the doctrines of the Bible, or to judge and truths or errors of others. It is unfortunate that many have, in their zeal to promote the Bible as the highest authority, rejected Reason and commonsense as the primary revelation of God and tool for interpreting the Bible and all claims. Not only did Luther say otherwise, but the Bible itself assumes this throughout, especially in Romans chapter 1 where Paul explains what is revealed to all people self-evidently through the faculties of the mind that God has given them.
Luther was not always consistent in these things and often contradicted himself when touching on various doctrines. One such example among many of the Reformers was the idea that our faculties were so fallen from grace that in some sense our Reason was corrupted and not worthy to trust. This was primarily in reference to the doctrines pertaining to sin where Luther never expected the gospel to deliver him from sin in this present life.
"The original sin in a man is like his beard, which, though shaved off today so that a man is very smooth around his mouth, yet grows again by tomorrow morning. As long as a man lives, such growth of hair and beard does not stop. But when the shovel slaps the ground on his grave, it stops. In just this way original sin remains in us and exercises itself as long as we live, but we must resist it and always be cutting off its hair." D. Martin Luthers Werke, Weimar, 1883, Tischreden, I: 138.
Yet this contradicts the plain words of Christ: "Go, and sin no more." John 8. 11. "Sin no more". John 5: 14. (see also John 8: 31-36). Thus, Luther came only halfway out of Rome. He recognized justification by faith but not sanctification by faith.
"She shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus. For he shall save his people from their sins." Matthew 1: 21.
"What shall we say then? We say that the gentiles which followed not righteousness have overtaken righteousness: I mean the righteousness which cometh of faith. But Israel which followed the law of righteousness, could not attain unto the law of righteousness. And wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith: but as it were by the works of the law. For they have stumbled at the stumbling-stone." Romans 9.
His views on sanctification were still carried over from Romanism where the soul still struggled in vain efforts to fight against the flesh in self-righteous efforts to conform to God's law. "The very God of peace sanctify you throughout. And I pray God that your whole spirit, soul and body, be kept faultless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he which called you: which will also do it." 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24. He was not consistent with the scriptures or reason in this doctrine of the nature of man because his philosophy was based upon tradition rather than commonsense and a consistent reading of scripture. "Seeing that we have such promises dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, and grow up to full holiness in the fear of God." 2 Corinthians 7:1. To be sure he did quote scriptures, that when taken by themselves, out of context, appeared to support his positions. But when read in the context of the bible in general, and the immediate context, each of these proof-text would be consistent with an opposite interpretation which he gave to them. Notice here what Asa Mahan wrote along these lines:
"No proposition is, properly speaking, proven, till facts or arguments are adduced, which not only affirm its truth, but contradict every opposite proposition. How often is this fundamental law of evidence overlooked and disregarded in almost every department of human investigation. In Theology, for example, how often is an hypothesis denominated a doctrine, which merely consists with a given class of passages of Holy Writ, assumed as absolutely affirmed by these passages, when, in reality, they equally consist with the contradictory hypothesis. Let it ever be borne in mind, that no passage or passages of Scripture prove any one doctrine which do not contradict every opposite doctrine. No facts affirm any one hypothesis which do not equally contradict every contradictory hypothesis." Intellectual Philosophy.
Not only were Luther's proof-texts shown to be capable of an opposite interpretation according to context, but also his doctrine was shown to be incompatible with hundreds of scriptures throughout the bible.
"You shall be perfect, even as your father which is in heaven, is perfect." Matthew 5:48.
"Wherefore gird up the loins of your minds, be sober, and trust perfectly on the grace that is brought unto you, by the declaring of Jesus Christ, as obedient children, not fashioning yourselves unto your old lusts of ignorance: but as he which called you is holy, even so be ye holy in all manner of conversation, because it is written. Be ye holy, for I am holy." 1 Peter 1.
The crowning theme of the Bible is holiness. The Good news was to save us from sin, not merely from hell which is the consequence. The grace was not only to pardon, but to cleanse. The promise was not partial but full. The testimony was not human but divine. The authority was not lacking but absolute. The command was not an impossible bondage but our privilege.
"This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments, and his commandments are not grievous. For all that that is born of God, overcometh the world. And this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcometh the world: but he which believeth that Jesus is the son of God?" 1 John 5.
Before quoting a fundamental summary of such an example from the Bible I give the following quote from the great Reformer William Tyndale in his 1534 translation of the Bible, which was the first such translation from the original languages. This was the last paragraph of five of which were added to Luther's A Prologue to the Epistle of Paul to the Romans. This Prologue was also instrumental in converting John Wesley.
"Now go to reader, and according to the order of Paul's writing, even so do thou. First behold thyself diligently in the law of God, and see there thy just damnation. Secondarily turn thin eyes to Christ, and see there the exceeding mercy of thy most kind and loving father. Thirdly remember that Christ made not this atonement that thou shouldest anger God again: neither died he for thy sins, that thou shouldest live still in them: neither cleansed he thee, that thou shouldest return (as a swine) unto thine old puddle again: but that thou shouldest be a new creature and live a new life after the will of God and not of the flesh. And be diligent lest through thine own negligence and unthankfulness thou lose this favour and mercy again. Farewell. William Tyndale." Addition to Luther's A Prologue to the Epistle of Paul to the Romans.
In the same old worthy translation, we have used throughout this article, in Titus chapter Two section C we read:
"For the grace of God, that bringeth salvation unto all men, hath appeared and teacheth us that we should deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and that we should live sober-minded, righteously and godly in this present world, looking for that blessed hope and glorious appearing of the mighty God, and of our saviour Jesus Christ which gave himself for us, to redeem us from all unrighteousness, and to purge us a peculiar people unto himself, fervently given unto good works. These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke, with all commanding. See that no man despise thee."
Tyndale took the Reformation further in showing the Gospel really does provide for a new creation in this life, that frees us from the bondage of the flesh and the world, and that the atonement was not some arbitrary declaration for man irrespective of their decisions, nor unconditionally effectual without conformity to God's will. Tyndale was not merely reacting against the abuses of Rome and swinging to opposite extremes. He realized that while the Romish system was in fundamental error in supposing grace could be earned (by some kind of conformity to God's will), and was rather to be received by faith, he also realized that the Romish system was in equal error in supposing that sanctification could be resolved upon by self-righteous efforts when in fact the gospel provided the same salvation from sin by faith. Romans and others stumbled in the old Galatian error which only lead to further bondage in sin as illustrated in the later half of Romans chapter seven. What Tyndale discovered was the glorious gospel in Romans chapter 6 and 8 which was not merely some moment of faith for justification, but a life of faith, where "the righteousness required of the law might be fulfilled in us, which walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit." Romans 8:4. The promise of liberty over sin was really just as solemn a testimony of God as was justification by that same faith. The hope of the apostle was realized in the following declaration from the highest authority in heaven: "What shall we then say unto these things? If God be on our side: who can be against us? which spared not his own son, but gave him for us all: how shall he not with him give us all things also?" "Nevertheless in all these things we overcome strongly through his help that loved us." To therefore place man's experience above this testimony of God is a violation of the purpose and fundamental point of the Reformation. Tyndale was consistent, while Luther came only halfway out of Rome on this matter of faith, just as in his doctrine of the Eucharist. For the idea was contained in that most famous of Luther's quotes above. In this matter of sanctification he did not conform to either reason or scripture but adopted traditions and experience as his guide. He argued in the same manner as the papists upon such doctrines while contradicting himself in arguing against their abuses in other matters he was correct in.
Luther (and Calvin) opened the door to contradictory movements in the church. He inspired a movement that returned to the Bible and commonsense realism as divinely authoritative guides over against the teachings and experience of men. But he later contradicted this in teaching and practice by refusing to adhere to a commonsense interpretation of the Bible and the testimony and promises of God. This later practice then opened the door to further sectarianism and abusive authority structures that later indulged in similar forms of oppression against people attempting to live by the real principles of the reformation as mentioned above. The influence of the Reformation was greatly hindered by this confusion and selective application of the real principles of the Reformation. Many people laid down their lives for the freedom to make the Bible and commonsense their highest authority, but as years multiplied the later influence grew and overcame those professing to be Protestants and holding to the doctrines of the Reformation.
It was not the doctrines of the reformation that changed the world, other than these essential principles. Justification by faith would never have been appreciated unless these primary principles were first firmly established in the hearts and minds of Europeans. It was not justification by faith alone that changed the world. It was God showing forth His absolute authority as revealed to people as individuals in these two ways. Throughout history man has always been oppressed by people telling them what is truth, but in 1521 God's fundamental point was revealed in Luther's statement that two revelations of God had been given to every person, and these are the highest authority on earth. This is what gave the freedom from Rome, tyranny, and man-made religious oppression. This was the source of all the change for good that resulted. No other foundation existed. But many had only halfway come out of Rome and thus ended up establishing other forms of Romish systems because they supposed they were honoring the traditions of the Reformers, and supposed the same error of the Papists, that forcing conformity to doctrines was the answer and purpose of the church. Systems of Theology then became dead popes to judge and condemn men by. Many a man like Luther was persecuted for personally standing upon the very same foundation and differing with this growing body of traditions and doctrine. Doctrine is very important, justification by faith alone is fundamental. But there is a divine order revealed to man as shown in the holy scriptures. Reversing this order will lead to sectarianism and dogmatic presumption and its resulting prejudice and bigotry. All doctrines are based upon mental philosophies and philosophies of interpretation and revelation. If these are faulty the outcome will be defective. What you go into the Bible with is what you will come out with. If you contradict commonsense and the natural revelation God has given all men, then you will contradict God's special revelation and interpret it according to your same philosophy. It is not enough to claim to go by the Bible alone, one needs to establish what they mean by so doing that. How do you read it? What do you come there with? Traditions? Experiences? Commonsense or plain reason, and logical integrity?
"Examine all things, and keep that which is good." 1 Thessalonians 5.
"Be not deceived: malicious speakings corrupt good manners. Awake truly out of sleep, and sin not. For some have not the knowledge of God. I speak this unto your rebuke." 1 Corinthians 15.
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