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Do Words Matter?

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
January 24, 2022 12:01 am

Do Words Matter?

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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January 24, 2022 12:01 am

Was the Reformation merely a trivial debate over some theological words -- an unnecessary squabble over doctrinal vocabulary? Today, Michael Reeves shows that when the gospel is at stake, the words we use bear eternal significance.

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The great 16th century scholar Erasmus said, the sum of our religion is peace and unanimity, but these can scarcely stand unless we define as little as possible.

In other words, don't define your beliefs too carefully or we'll never have peace. Welcome to Renewing Your Mind as we begin a new week of study. We're featuring a series we call Reformation Truths. Dr. Michael Reeves is our teacher and he's going to address a 16th century mindset that unfortunately exists today in the church. The theological precision isn't that important. He'll look at common misconceptions about the Reformation to reveal that the gospel itself was at stake and still is.

Welcome. In this series, we're going to look at some essential Christian truths. Scripture, sin, grace, justification, union with Christ, the new birth, the glory of God. These are all truths that the Reformers dug deep into and each one can be understood in quite different ways. Indeed, we're going to see each of these topics is understood in remarkably different ways by different Christian traditions. And what we'll see is that the Reformers didn't simply trumpet belief in justification or Scripture or grace. They fought to articulate a very specific biblical understanding of these truths. For they saw you could believe in justification by faith or salvation by grace. And still not have anything like the biblical gospel in mind.

For you can mean things by justification or grace that the Scriptures simply do not mean. A vague understanding of these truths we'll see will not bring the life change and world change that the Reformers sought. That the Reformers saw with their clear understanding of these truths. And my hope in this series is that we'll come together to appreciate that when we have the mainstream Reformers clarity on the precise meaning of these truths, that's when we'll share their joy, their resolution, and their gospel.

The gospel that is the power of God for salvation and the light that scatters the darkness. Now take Martin Luther as an example. We'll see that long before the Reformation as a monk, Luther always believed in justification by God's grace.

However, it was only when he gained clarity on how different the Apostle Paul's understanding of it was that he could say, here I felt I was all together born again and it entered paradise itself through open gates. And so our time then will be about growing in gospel delight through growing in gospel clarity. And we'll be doing that as we walk in the footsteps of the Reformers, letting them be our guides. Now the suggestion that the issues of the Reformation might still be live sits uncomfortably with our culture today. Most Christians today would far rather say with Dr. Samuel Johnson, for my part sir, I think all Christians where the Papists or Protestants agree in the essential articles and their differences are trivial and political rather than religious. And it's not just that we lament divisions in the church, our reaction reveals something in us that is perhaps more important than Protestant Catholic relations. To modern ears, the debates of the Reformation sound like pernickety wars over words.

We ask is it really worth squabbling over whether justification is by faith as Rome agreed or by faith alone as the Reformers insisted to battle over one word? Surely our culture feels that can interest only those with the prickliest of doctrinal sensibilities. And as for the strong language used in those debates, it sounds shrill and unloving today in our culture.

And to suggest those debates are relevant now, you might as well campaign for the reintroduction of burning at the stake. It sounds so backwards, so harsh. For in the 21st century, our culture does not trust mere words. In our culture, they're seen as the weapons of manipulation, the tools of spin. We are tolerant. And the spirit of the Reformation that replaced the altar with the pulpit as the focal point of the church has long gone. A pulpit, we think?

That strikes our culture as authoritarian. And this was just what some thought at the time of the Reformation. The great 16th century scholar Erasmus said, the sum of our religion is peace and unanimity. But these can scarcely stand unless we define as little as possible. In other words, don't define your beliefs too carefully or we'll never have peace. And the spirit of Erasmus has really conquered in our day. Simply put, in our culture today, we do not like theological precision.

For our culture feels it causes division over issues that are not the most relevant. Luther, unsurprisingly, responded bluntly to Erasmus. He said, you with your peace-loving theology, you don't care about truth. Perhaps that was a little harsh and the screams of all those who were put to death for their beliefs might suggest to us that a little more toleration, little less harshness might not have been a bad thing. But as we look at the history of the Reformation, we're forced to ask are their beliefs worth dying for? For all those martyrs suffered for nothing if what they died for was either untrue or irrelevant. They might, of course, have been mistaken. Each side of the Reformation debate thought the other side's martyrs were mistaken, but their fates demand from us more than simply flippant dismissal. But perhaps what's really going on is we relegate these theological issues because of a submerged cultural assumption they're not actually true. Because these are hardly small concerns that were being debated in the Reformation. What will happen to me when I die?

How can I know? Is justification the gift of a righteous status by faith alone or a process of becoming more holy? Justification by faith.

In which case, can I confidently rely on Christ alone for my salvation or does my justification also rest on my own holiness? And far more is at stake than a fussy concern to dot the I and cross the T of doctrine. Now what is so worrying about Erasmus' indifference to doctrine was its imprisoning corrosive effect. Erasmus was only ever able and only ever wanted to sponge down the system that he was in. So he could take potshots at bad popes, he could wish people were more devoted, but because Erasmus was unwilling to engage with deeper doctrinal issues in his day, he could never bring about more than cosmetic changes to the church in his day. He was doomed ever to remain a prisoner of where the church was at.

And so it must be in a world conquered by Erasmus, filled with his spirit. For as long as doctrine is ignored, we must remain captives of the ruling system or the spirit of the age, whatever that must be. And I hope we'll get to see that lack of clarity on these essential truths creates a host of pastoral problems in Christian lives. And yet, doctrinal vagueness or confusion is not always easy to spot.

So let me give you an example. A few years ago, a poll was taken to measure the presence of Evangelicalism in Canada and the U.S. And respondents were marked down as Evangelical if they agreed with four statements. That the Bible is the inspired word of God, that I have committed my life to Christ and consider myself to be a converted Christian, that it is important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians, and fourth, that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God provided a way for the forgiveness of my sins. Now, certainly those sound very theologically Evangelical statements, each one. And on that basis, a significant percentage of Roman Catholics were labeled Evangelical. In fact, a quarter of those marked down in Canada as Evangelicals were Roman Catholic. Well, half of the American Catholics interviewed scored three out of four on the Evangelical test. And none of this was to offend the Catholics concerned for a good number already referred to themselves as Evangelical.

The problem with the poll, however, was that it raised none of the issues of the Reformation. In the 16th century, both sides of the Reformation divide would happily have signed up to all four statements and found themselves labeled Evangelical. The inspiration of the Bible, commitment to Christ, mission, God's love for us, and so on, the Bible, commitment to Christ, mission, God's provision of salvation through Jesus were never points of contention. Let's take an even trickier example of doctrinal vagueness or confusion that isn't obvious.

One, in fact, that looks very clear on the surface. On October 31st, Reformation Day, 1999, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, claiming, we are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ. And the Joint Declaration held out a pretty detailed account of the theological agreement shared over the Doctrine of Justification. And it was detailed and persuasive enough to lead many to think that the fundamental theological differences of the Reformation, especially justification, have now been resolved. The eminent historian, Professor Mark Knoll, for instance, boldly declared, if it is true, as once was repeated by Protestants conscious of their anchorage in Martin Luther or John Calvin, that justification is the article on which the church stands or falls, then the Reformation is over, he said. And you can see why he'd say that when you read the Joint Declaration. It is worded so carefully, it can be hard to imagine these words are open to two possible but completely incompatible theological interpretations. Take paragraph 12.

Listen carefully. It says, the justified live by faith that comes from the word of Christ and is active through love. Now, what Christian could object? But does that love contribute to the believer's right righteousness before God, the Roman Catholic view? Or does it follow from it, the traditional evangelical view?

We're not told. We'll take paragraph 15, which amazingly appears to affirm a Reformation distinctive, grace alone. It reads, together we confess the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church by grace alone in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part. We are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works. Yet, what could be taken as an affirmation of justification by grace alone there is in fact only a statement that by his grace alone, God renews our hearts, transforming us to do good works. It doesn't answer the question, do those good works and that renewal play a part in the justification of the believer? It sounded so tight, so persuasive, but it hadn't actually delved deep enough.

See how hard it can be to spot the problem? The joint declaration speaks of justification by faith and even grace alone. And because it can be hard to spot, it can give the impression that the differences are too small to be significant.

It certainly feels more positive, less mentally taxing, simply to say they look pretty similar. But when each theology is practically applied to real lives, it becomes clear how different they are and how deep those differences go. Take the question of assurance of salvation, the matter that drove Luther on his quest. According to the joint declaration, it says, no one may doubt God's mercy and Christ's merit. Every person, however, may be concerned about his salvation when he looks upon his weaknesses and shortcomings. Recognizing his failure, however, the believer may yet be certain that God intends his salvation. Are you confused? Does that mean we can have assurance or not? Let me read it to you again.

Here's what the joint declaration says. No one may doubt God's mercy and Christ's merit. Every person, however, may be concerned about his salvation when he looks upon his own weaknesses and shortcomings. Recognizing his own failures, however, the believer may yet be certain that God intends his salvation. So can a believer have assurance or not? We may not doubt Christ's merit, God's mercy, yet we may be concerned about our salvation when we look upon our own weaknesses.

I'm confused. The declaration explains then, a person can certainly lose or renounce faith and self-commitment to God and his word of promise. But if he believes in this sense, he cannot at the same time believe God is unreliable in his word of promise.

Shall I help? In other words, what it's saying is God is faithful to save, but only to save those who maintain their self-commitment to God and his word of promise. So the assurance of believers rests upon their own self-commitment. Now, compare that with how Luther spoke of the believer's assurance.

Assurance. These theological differences that could have looked small now see when it's played out on the pastoral ground of assurance. See how different Luther sounds. Luther said, the believer can have assurance for her sins cannot now destroy her since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And the believer has that righteousness in Christ her husband of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display her sins in the face of death and hell and say, if I've sinned yet my Christ in whom I believe has not sinned and all his, his righteousness is mine and all mine, my sin is his.

As the bride in the Song of Solomon says, my beloved is mine and I am his. There's doctrinal clarity worked out into real lives. See the difference? Looking with the joint declaration with ultimate concern, worry because of our personal shortcomings, or confidently with Luther saying, all his is mine and all mine, my sin is his.

Those are the two applications that reveal two quite different theologies. And it gives just one example of why we should want in this series to gain the reformers clarity on these issues. For through clarity, we can grow in that assurance. We can grow in Luther's own resolution. We can grow in Christ. The Reformation brought assurance to Christians. What an incredible message. Salvation by God's grace alone is a message of incredible freedom, isn't it? When we realize that we don't have to work our way into heaven, the weight of our burden of sin is lifted.

And there's almost a physical relief to that. Thanks for listening to Renewing Your Mind on this Monday. I'm Lee Webb. Dr. Michael Reeves is our teacher this week. He is president of the Union School of Theology in Wales, and he's a regular speaker at our Ligonier National Conferences.

Dr. Reeves' series called Reformation Truths reveals the stark contrast between Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions and helps us see why the Reformation was necessary and why it was necessary to still matter five centuries later. We'll be glad to send you this eight-lesson series when you give a donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries. You can request it online at renewingyourmind.org, or you can call us with your gift at 800-435-4343. This series, by the way, has been added to Ligonier Connect. We regularly update our interactive courses there. Give me a call at the opportunity to study at your own pace or with a group. Ligonier Connect is an online learning and discipleship community designed to help you grow in your faith.

And you can learn more at connect.ligonier.org. Before we go today, I thought it would be helpful for us to get a little more perspective on the Reformation. Dr. Stephen Nichols is the president of Reformation Bible College, and he has a podcast called Reformation Truths, which is a series of videos about the Reformation Bible College.

And he has a podcast called Five Minutes in Church History. This clip is from the episode titled, What is Reformation Day? Now, the first Reformation Day was October 31st, 1517. And on that day, Martin Luther, a monk in the city of Wittenberg, nailed his 95 theses to the church door. Now, why would Luther do that? Well, in order to understand why Luther was doing that, we need to introduce a few more characters into the scene.

One of those characters was Albert of Brandenburg. Now, Albert of Brandenburg was not old enough to be a bishop. Yet, in 1517, he was already bishop over two cities, which was against church law. And on top of that, he wanted to be the archbishop of Mons. Well, to hold these three offices was also against church law. And that meant that Albert needed a papal dispensation. So now we enter another character into the story. And this character is Leo X. Leo X of the Medici family of Florence, like that family, was a patron of the arts.

It was Leo X who brought Michelangelo in to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling there in St. Peter's Basilica. And so Albert needing a papal dispensation, Leo X was in a position to give two men. And like good businessmen, they struck a deal. And for 10,000 ducats, Albert could have his three bishoprics.

But there was an issue for Albert. His money was largely in land and not in cash. And so he needed to raise the money to fund this. And so we enter yet another character, and this is the enterprising monk, Tetzel. Tetzel devised a jingle to sell indulgences. These were supplied by the pope. And these indulgences allowed not only for your past sins to be forgiven, but for your future sins to be forgiven. And these indulgences also allowed you to get your relatives out of purgatory.

And so Tetzel began selling these indulgences. Well, this development deeply troubled Luther. He saw how these things were contrary to the church's doctrine at the time, and that these practices were rather renegade. And so he does what a scholar could do.

He goes into his study and he pens his 95 theses for debate. He does this on October 31st because November 1st was a crucial day in the church calendar. November 1st was All Saints Day. And so the day before would be hallowed evening, or as we say, Halloween. And so on October 31st, 1517, Luther nails his 95 theses to the church door. That's Dr. Stephen Nichols from Five Minutes in Church History. And you can find that podcast in your favorite AMP store. And with that perspective on the beginnings of the Reformation, I hope you'll join us again tomorrow as Dr. Michael Reeves continues his series.

And here's a preview. Scripture alone is the authority that rules over and governs all other authorities. And there would have been no Reformation without this truth. I hope you'll join us tomorrow for Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-06-18 22:04:44 / 2023-06-18 22:12:52 / 8

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