The Reformation and the Gospel

Luther 95 Theses

This coming October 31st marks the five hundred year anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in Germany. These 95 Theses became the foundation of the Protestant Reformation, which for many restored the biblical ideal of justification by faith and thereby the purity of the Gospel message.

Earlier in 1517, a friar by the name of Johann Tetzel began selling indulgences in Germany as a mean to raise funds for the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. By purchasing an indulgence, one could gain the release of a sinner from purgatory or help ensure one’s own salvation. For example, if someone suspected that Uncle Joe was not quite ready for heaven when he died, dropping several coins into the box carried around by Tetzel would remedy that situation by instantly delivering Uncle Joe from purgatory into heaven.

Luther condemned this practice of indulgences, the subject of several of his 95 Theses. It’s easy to see why he objected to such manipulation of the people.

Justification by Grace Along with Works

In the Roman Catholic Church of Luther’s day, justification had become a lifelong process through which one received grace through the church and its sacraments that enabled him or her to do the good works necessary for salvation.

Can you see how such teaching would create much uncertainty regarding one’s final status before God? How could anyone know if they had been faithful enough in avoiding sins so that God would pronounce them righteous or justified at the end of their life?

The priests of Luther’s day must have dreaded seeing him walk into their confessional booths.

This is why young Luther spent hours at a time confessing his sins to a priest. He believed that getting into heaven that he confess all his sins and live as good a life as possible. As a result, he meticulously and fervently confessed everything he thought might even possibly be a sin. The priests of Luther’s day must have dreaded seeing him walk into their confessional booths.

Justification by Faith Alone

As Luther studied Scripture, he realized that God did not base our salvation on a combination of grace and personal merit. He saw that our justification, or our righteous standing before God, did not result from a lifelong process of resisting sin and doing good works, but rather took place the moment we place our faith in Jesus.

The word the Apostle Paul used for justification denoted a judge in his day pronouncing a not guilty verdict upon the accused person standing before him. Sinners, like the person standing trial, are declared righteous once and for all time. It’s not something that happens over time.

Justification takes place the instant we call out to the Lord in saving faith, not at the end of our lives. In Romans 5:1, Paul says “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God.” Our right relationship with God comes instantly; He declares us righteous the moment we believe.

The Apostle Paul often emphasized that God saves us totally by grace through faith apart from any merit of our own (see Titus 3:4-7 and Eph. 2:8-9). Good works come after our adoption into God’s family, not before.

Luther based his revolutionary teaching at the time solely on Scripture. An allegorical interpretation of God’s Word had begun centuries earlier as a way for some to view Old Testament prophecy symbolically. As a result, those who interpreted the Bible in such a way viewed the Old Testament promises of a kingdom for Israel as something the church fulfilled spiritually.

Unfortunately, this allegorical way of understanding Scripture later eroded the purity of the Gospel as it opened the door for church tradition to contaminate biblical beliefs, especially those pertaining to salvation.

A Literal Interpretation of Scripture

Both Luther and John Calvin condemned such allegorical interpretations and the adding of human tradition to the teaching of Scripture. They brought their followers back to a literal way of interpreting God’s Word through two key principles.

The elevation of the Bible as supreme in all matters of faith became a key factor in restoring the sound scriptural teaching of justification by faith apart from good works.

The first such principle was that of “sola Scriptura.” This signifies that Scripture alone is our sole source and supreme authority when it comes to all matters pertaining to faith and practice. For the reformers, this meant that the Bible was sufficient for all spiritual matters and thus took precedence over all the traditions of the church and the teachings of all previous popes.

This elevation of the Bible as supreme in all matters of faith became a key factor in restoring the sound scriptural teaching of justification by faith apart from good works.

Secondly, Luther emphasized “Scripture interprets Scripture” as essential for interpreting the Bible. This precept stresses that all of Scripture is God’s Word and as such does not and cannot contradict itself. Scripture thus acts as its own commentary.

A section of the Bible where the meaning is clear can and must be used to interpret a related section of Scripture where the interpretation is less evident or open to several differences of opinion.

These principles of interpretation advocated by Martin Luther and the other Reformers forever changed the course of church history and remain the standard for biblical interpretation for most Protestant churches today.

These two principles of interpreting Scripture in a literal way had another significant long-term impact on the teaching of the church, one that did not appear until well after the time of the Reformers. This later result of interpreting Scripture literally will be the topic of my next article celebrating the 500 year anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.

Can anyone guess what this future impact might be?

 

Will Any Believers Be Left Behind?

left-behind-picture

I was terrified! Had they left without me?

As I frantically searched for my mom and dad, that question kept popping into my mind. Maybe they thought I was with my older sister. Maybe each thought I was with the other. Where were they? I had just looked away for a moment and now they were gone!

Not only was I two thousand miles from home, I was alone in Chinatown of all places. We were visiting my sister who lived in southern California and had spent the day sightseeing before ending up in Chinatown for supper and to do some shopping.

After what seemed to be a very long time, although it was perhaps only a minute or two at the most, I finally located my mom and rushed to her side.

Somehow, in all my panic, I knew my parents would never leave their second-grader behind in such a strange place.

And yet, I am hearing of more and more Christians who believe the Lord could possibly leave them behind when He comes for His church. Theologians refer to this as the partial rapture theory, which teaches that only those who are watching for the Lord’s return or are ready for it will go to heaven when He comes for His church.

Will Jesus leave any believer behind when He comes for His church? No, He will no more leave any of us behind than a loving parent would leave his or her child behind in a store or anywhere else.

Let me explain why I am so sure of this.

An Unbroken Link

In Romans 8:30 the apostle Paul assures us that all who are justified will be glorified. This is an unbroken link. As believers, our glorification is just as certain as our justification.

All those in Christ will be glorified. Why would Jesus delay this for some while completing it for others? That does not make any sense. Scripture nowhere supports such a thought.

In other words, since God justified us when we were His enemies, how much more shall we be delivered from the coming wrath, including that of the tribulation, now that we are His beloved children?

Furthermore, while we were in the position of being enemies of the God, He saved us by grace and bestowed on us the very righteousness of Jesus (Rom. 5:8; Eph. 2:5-6, 2 Cor. 5:21). As Paul says in Romans 5:9, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”

In other words, since God justified us when we were His enemies, how much more shall we be delivered from the coming wrath, including that of the tribulation, now that we are His beloved children?

We receive eternal life totally by grace through faith. Why would the completion of our faith be based on merit or work? God’s grace leaves no room for boasting. Are some believers now to have a reason to boast because they were included in the rapture?

Absolutely not! Our salvation from beginning to end is all by God’s grace.

No Such Distinction

Scripture passages dealing extensively with the rapture make no distinction between believers who will be raptured and those who will not. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 says “the dead in Christ will rise first;” They will all be raised to meet the Lord in the air. After which Paul says, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. . . .”

Paul earlier in verse 14 said this, “God will bring with him those who have fall asleep” indicating those who have died in Christ. Regardless of our maturity level at the time of death, we will all go to be with Jesus and then return with Him at the rapture to be joined with our bodies.

My question is this: If there is no distinction for believers who are now with Christ regarding their part in the rapture, why would there be such a difference for living believers? Why would living believers be held to a different standard in order to be included in the rapture?

Would not this mean it is safer to be dead when Jesus returns? How crazy is that!?

Paul emphasizes that we will “all be changed;” we will all go to meet Jesus when He appears. We are all saints regardless of our maturity or anticipation of the Lord’s return for us.

In writing to perhaps the most worldly and divided church of all the early New Testament churches, the apostle makes it clear that at Jesus’ return “we shall all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51). If he was ever going to make such a distinction to indicate a partial rapture, here is where he would have done so when addressing the subject for the church at Corinth.

Instead, Paul emphasizes that we will “all be changed;” we will all go to meet Jesus when He appears. We are all saints regardless of our maturity or anticipation of the Lord’s return for us.

Assumption of Eagerness

The New Testament writers assumed that all believers eagerly anticipated the return of Jesus for His church. This became a term of identification for early Christians. The result of turning to the Gospel from idols meant that the Thessalonian believers naturally waited for Jesus’ return (1 Thess. 1:9-10). Paul characterized believers in this way in several passages throughout the New Testament in places such as Philippians 3:20 and Titus 2:11-13.

When the writer of Hebrews says in 9:28 that Christ “will appear a second time . . . to save those who are eagerly waiting for him,” he is referring to all believers in the same way Paul does in many of his texts.

The apostles did not envision followers of Christ who were not eagerly awaiting His return for them.

 Confusion of Rewards Versus Readiness

Some also use 1 John 2:28 to support their assertion that some believers will be left behind. Here John says, “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.” This verse speaks to the need to be ready for Jesus’ return; it says nothing of anyone being left behind.

I believe this verse actually confirms that all believers will be taken in the rapture. How is it possible for someone to feel shame in Jesus’ presence if they are not with Him? Saints who are not walking with the Lord when He returns will experience shame, but they will not be left behind.

2 Timothy 4:8 indicates that those who love Jesus’ “appearing” will receive a reward referred to as a “crown of righteousness.” Those who eagerly await Jesus’ return and thereby walk closely with Him will be rewarded. This does not exclude others from the rapture.

What is the standard?

If some believers are to be left behind at the rapture, how is that to be determined?

Is it based on eagerly watching for Jesus appearing? For me, that often changes several times a day. There are times when I am conscious of awaiting His return and other times when my mind is preoccupied with other things. How can this be the basis for who goes or who is left behind?

Others say that maturity in Christ is the standard with the tribulation used by God to purify fleshly believers. Again, what is the standard for this? What passage supports such a works-based approach to our deliverance from the tribulation?

By placing the emphasis on our behavior rather than God’s grace, the partial rapture theory actually undermines our anticipation of Jesus’ appearing. How do we eagerly look forward to the rapture if our focus is totally on our readiness for it?

Our place in the rapture is solely determined by God’s love for us as His dear children. Nothing more; nothing less!

In 1 John 3:1-2 John says, “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. . . . Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”

Our place in the rapture is solely determined by God’s love for us as His dear children. Nothing more; nothing less!

The key question regarding readiness is: Do you know Jesus as your Savior? Have you called out to Him for the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life?

I John 5:12 says, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” If you have not put your trust in Jesus, please do so before it is too late. He is coming soon!

Our Unfailing Advocate

gavel advocacy

I remember Jay Leno on the Tonight Show mentioning that his whole life was videotaped for security reasons. Leno’s purpose in saying this was to introduce some incident between him and his cat, which he wanted us to assume was totally impromptu.

But what if . . . what if our entire lives, every waking moment, was somehow captured on video? Furthermore, what if this was available for any enemy of ours to use against us?

Far-fetched you might say?? Revelation 12:10 refers to Satan as “the accuser of the brethren” and as someone who “accuses” us as believers “day and night before our God.” Satan is able to recount incidents (and perhaps replay events) from my life and then bring charges against me, “Look at this display of unbelief! Did you see that lack of faith in his display of anxiety! Jonathan claims to be your child, but look at his prideful behavior. Surely he is not who he claims to be.” Satan never gives up in his relentless efforts to accuse us both in person and before our Father in heaven.

However, I John 2:1 says that when we sin, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Whew! I have someone to defend me before my Father, a never-failing advocate on my behalf. We are never left defenseless against Satan’s attacks.

Romans 8:33-34 further describes this courtroom scene in heaven, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” Because we are justified before God, Jesus never fails to intercede on our behalf and defend us against all charges made against us.

When Scripture says we are justified, this signifies God’s proclamation that we are righteous solely because of Jesus and His death on the cross for our sins. Justification is a legal term indicating a judicial pronouncement made in a court of law. All the legal claims against us have been forever cancelled; they are nailed to the cross and we bear them no more (see Col. 2:13-15); God declares those in Christ forever righteous in His sight. Jesus is our righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). In addition, Jesus remains our advocate, our defense attorney, always ready to defend us before the Father.

Romans 8:1 sums up this wonderful news, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Notice the apostle does not say there is “no condemnation” for the religious or for the moral or for those who always obey God. No, the promise is for those “in Christ,” for those who have a saving relationship with Jesus.

Satan can bring a whole flash drive full of condemning videos; it will never change God’s verdict of righteousness on those of us who know Jesus as our Savior. Jesus is the one who continually defends us and when you think of it, could there possibly be a better defense attorney in the entire universe?

Recently, someone asked me to make a value judgment on a politician’s character based on a short video of less than a minute. While the incident on the video certainly put the man in a bad light, I could not agree it exemplified his entire life. As I later reflected on the discussion regarding the video, I realized I am no better than that candidate. A great number of equally condemning videos against me could be paraded before my Father in heaven to which I could only lower my head in shame.

My confidence, however, rests solely in Jesus and His righteousness. He is my only defense against all the countless charges made against me, past, present, and future. This is what it means to be justified before Him: no future charge can ever change our righteous standing before God or interfere with our hope of someday reigning with Christ. Jesus is not only our unfailing advocate, but coming soon to take us to be with Him in heaven.

He alone is the reason we are secure in our hope of spending eternity with Him. This is why we can confidently look for His appearing. He alone is our unfailing hope.

Romans 8:31-32 says this about those in Christ, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

Some might claim, as they did in Paul’s day, that such grace opens the door to more sin. However, as the reality of what Jesus has done and continues to do for us sinks increasingly into our hearts, it energizes our desire to serve and love Him all the more.

Praise God for His amazing grace, love, and mercy! So undeserved but welcomed with much thanksgiving!!