Friday, December 03, 2010

Review of Concerning Christian Liberty by Martin Luther

I wrote these reflections on Luther's famous work about year ago, and since then have found myself constantly going back it, in particular the section I highlight below on union with Christ. The edition I read is from CCEL and can be found here.

Concerning Christian Liberty is a great statement of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone. In two main sections, Luther expounds his paradoxical opening statement that “a Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.” The two sections correspond to faith and works respectively.

Luther first asks what can make a man a “justified, free, and a true Christian; that is, a spiritual, new, and inward man.” Only the Word of God, the Gospel of Christ can do that, the gospel “concerning His Son, incarnate, suffering, risen, and glorified through the Spirit, the sanctifier.” In the gospel we are offered salvation, and only faith – not works – can grasp hold of this word. To be sure we are commanded to do works in the Scriptures, but the purpose of the commands is to show us what we cannot do, thus preparing us to receive the promise of God in the gospel.

Luther discusses three great “virtues” of faith.  Firstly, faith gives us true Christian liberty: we are free from the law and works as regards our justification and salvation. Secondly, faith honours God because in believing His promise it ascribes truth and righteousness to Him. Thus to not believe the word of the gospel would be to make God a liar. Thirdly, faith unites the soul to Christ. Believing in Christ is compared simply and stunningly to the marriage of a king and a prostitute, where both share equally what each brings to the union, for example: “Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation; the soul is full of sin, death, and condemnation. Let faith step in, and then sin, death and hell will belong to Christ, and grace, life, and salvation to the soul.”

In the second section, Luther argues for the place of works in the life of the Christian. Never a means to justification before God, works are, firstly, for the purpose of subduing “the lusts of the body” and secondly, the outworking of love to others. It is necessary that the person be made good before they are able to do good works, and not the other way round.

Evaluation and Questions
The great strength of Concerning Christian Liberty is of course its brilliant articulation of justification by faith alone. It is important that Luther begins with the Word: strictly speaking, we are justified not through faith alone, but through the word of the gospel, received by faith alone. This avoids the danger of treating faith as a “work” that we need to do, and hence we look inside us to see how much faith we have rather than look outside ourselves to Christ and His work. The central section about union with Christ is deeply moving in the assurance it gives to the person who trusts in Christ. I found the following paragraph particularly striking in the way it makes me look out of myself to what Christ has done on my behalf:

…Who can comprehend the riches of the glory of this grace? Christ, that rich and pious husband, takes as a wife a needy and impious harlot, redeeming her from all her evils, and supplying her with all His good things. It is impossible now that her sins should destroy her, since they have been laid upon Christ and swallowed up in Him, and since she has in her husband Christ a righteousness which she may claim as her own, and which she can set up with confidence against all her sins, against death and hell, saying: “If I have sinned, my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned; all mine is His, and all His is mine.”

This section on union with Christ does raise one question, though, which is the relationship between the union of the individual believer with Christ and the marriage of Christ and the church. Does Scripture actually use the marriage analogy for the individual believer’s relationship to Christ?

I am not certain that Luther has done the best job he could have done on the place of works in the Christian life. At one point, he suggests that God commands Adam (and by analogy the Christian) works to give him something to do, otherwise he’d be idle! The emphases on battling against the lusts of the flesh and working out of love for neighbour are really good, and he clearly shows that Christian liberty does not lead to licence, but he does not really articulate God’s purpose in saving us for good works; works being God’s purpose in creation and re-creation.

I have recently found the Gospel Coalition’s discussion of two ways of summarising the gospel very helpful (see their 'Theological Vision for Ministry' statement, section II 'How should we read the Bible?): on the one hand, creation - fall - redemption - restoration (in biblical theological categories) gives the big picture and emphasises the purpose of creating a new humanity and renewing creation for God’s glory. On the other hand, God-sin-Christ-faith (in systematic theological categories) focuses on the detailed means of individual salvation, namely substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone. Both ‘axes’ work together to articulate the gospel comprehensively, but the tendency is to emphasise one at the expense of the other.

What strikes as me as particularly important about Concerning Christian Liberty is that it is a deep and brilliant exposition of one of those central aspects of the gospel, namely, justification by faith. It can only help to go deeper; not that justification is all the gospel, as I have just said, but it is at the heart of the gospel. My suspicion, from experience, is that the gospel is often reduced to something very minimal, or assumed as merely the entry point to the Christian faith, before passing on to other things. We need to be able to articulate more clearly and more deeply this central doctrine, and Luther can only help in this regard. Studying Luther on this has brought me greater clarity on what Scripture teaches about the gospel.

Concerning Christian Liberty also shows that it is not sufficient to emphasise grace as being central to the gospel if you are not simultaneously showing how that grace is worked out in justification by the gospel word received by faith alone. The Roman Catholic gospel, for example, also includes grace.

On a personal note, Concerning Christian Liberty has helped me to understand more clearly what it means to trust in Christ, that is, to look outside of myself to the finished work of Christ in the Gospel Word, and not at how much faith or how little faith I have. As justification by faith alone is a doctrine with great practical application in many areas of the Christian life, I trust that the Lord will help me to continue to grow in applying this truth to my life.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

When church works, it's brilliant

I started reading Terry Virgo's Does the Future have a church? (Kingsway 2003) which looks like a very nice little book, and was impressed by this quote from Bill Hybels on the local church in the first chapter:

There is nothing like the local church when it's working right. Its beauty is indescribable. Its power is breathtaking. Its potential is unlimited... I believe that the local church is the hope of the world. I believe to the core of my being that local church leaders have the potential to be the most influential force on planet earth. If they 'get it,' and get on with it, churches can become the redemptive centers that Jesus intended them to be. Dynamic teaching, creative worship, deep community, effective evangelism, and joyful service will combine to renew the hearts and minds of seekers and believers alike, strengthen families, transform communities, and change the world.
The quote is from Bill.Hybels, Courageous Leadership (Zondervan 2002)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What is the message of 1 and 2 Kings for today?

The book of Kings charts the decline of the kingdom of Israel from the brief glories of the united kingdom under Solomon through the division into two kingdoms on his death and the subsequent accumulating apostasy and sin of firstly the northern kingdom of Israel, culminating in destruction and exile at the hands of Assyria in 2 Kings 17, and secondly the southern kingdom of Judah, with Jerusalem finally taken by the Babylonians in 2 Kings 25.

Kings is overwhelmingly a tale of human sin. The reign of Solomon is indeed glorious, but there are question marks over it throughout his reign, even from the very beginning: his political manouevring in chapter 2, his marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter and the worship at the high places, (I 3.1-3) before he is granted wisdom, wealth and honour by the LORD. But the absence of whole-hearted devotion (so much gold… and horses… and wives…!) in Solomon results on the judgment of the division of the kingdom.

In the northern kingdom, Jeroboam’s golden calves (this initial new Moses delivering the people from oppression becoing a new Aaron) set the tone for all the succeeding kings and mark Israel for judgment right from the start. (I 14.15-16) Virtually all the remaining kings “walked in the ways of Jeroboam son of Nabat” with the exception of the last king Hoshea, by which time it was far too late.

The second paradigm king in the northern kingdom, Ahab, outdoes Jeroboam by introducing Baal worship thus “provoking the Lord to anger more than all the kings of Israel who were before him.” (I 16.33) But even Jehu’s zeal in destroying Baal worship from Israel, for which the LORD rewards him with a dynasty to the fourth generation, does not exempt him from a negative verdict for he too continues in the ways of Jeroboam.

The kings in the south are more varied. There are the bad ones and “did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord”, there are the (relatively) good ones who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord”, enacting some reforms  – but leaving the high places intact. And then there are the really bad (Ahaz) who went as far as sacrificing his son in the fire and the really, really bad (Manasseh) whose evil is so deep that the destruction of Judah is finally foretold as a certain thing. And not even the best kings’s (Hezekiah but especially Josiah) goodness is enough to prevent disaster. In the end, both kingdoms are judged and sent into exile for the accumulation of generations of apostasy and rebellion against the covenant.

In constant juxtaposition and interaction with this long, mostly sordid tale is the LORD and His Word: the Mosaic covenant, the Davidic promise[1], and many specific words utterred through the prophets all play crucial roles in framing what is going on and directing their interpretation.

In relation to the Davidic promise, the whole book is played out against the tension between its conditional and unconditional nature. The original promise (2 Sam 7) is unconditional: David’s kingdom will endure forever, and is sometimes treated as such in Kings (e.g. I 11.36, 39; II 8.19). At other times, though, it seems that the continuation of David’s house is dependent on the obedience of Solomon and his descendants (e.g. I 2.4; 3.6; 8.25; esp. 9.4-9).

This tension is played out immediately on Solomon’s apostasy, as the kingdom is taken away from him and given to Jeroboam, yet the house of David maintains one tribe, because of God’s promise to David.

God addresses Solomon directly on four occasions (I 3.5-15; 6.11-13; 9.1-9; 11.9-13) but after Solomon none of the words of the LORD come directly to kings (or soon-to-be kings) but via a prophet. And virtually all of the prophetic words are directed to the northern kingdom of Israel until the north is destroyed. It seems that the sin and judgment of the north is dealt with first before the buck is passed to the south.

In the early dynasties of the north, the Word of the Lord is always of judgment. The whole history is framed by the long-term promise of exile, predicted right from the start in the reign of Jeroboam (I 14.15-16). Jeroboam’s house is predicted to be cut off, which it is in the second generation, then the usurper, Baasha’s house receives the same word and fulfilment. Judgment on Omri and Ahab’s house takes a lot longer but is just inexorable: the extended Elijah narrative culminates with the word of judgment in I 21.17-24) although its fulfilment also has to wait another nine chapters towards the end of the Elisha narrative as Jehu comes onto the scene. Whether the timescale is short or long, God’s word will be fulfilled, and this shows us that final judgment on the northern kingdom will eventually come. There is even room for relief and grace in the reigns of some of the later northern kings (II 13.4-5, 23; 14.25) but once Jehu’s dynasty ends, the end comes quickly.

All that occurs in the north is also intended to be a mirror on the south. Will what happens in the north also happen in the south? Will the Davidic make any difference? Although many of the kings are better, many are not, and on the whole the relative stability and continuance of the southern kingdom would appear to be down more to God’s commitment to his promise to David than to the southern lot being better at the obedience thing. The judgment on Ahab’s house under Jehu almost overwhelms Judah too and would have done apart from an almost miraculous preservation of baby Joash. David’s line hangs by a thread. But 2 Kings 17.18-19 makes clear that the sins that Israel committed, leading to their judgment, were also committed by Judah. Will Judah survive? At last, under Hezekiah, a prophet appears in the south. Isaiah’s words are of temporary relief in the face of the Assyrian threat, but also of warning of the Babylonian cloud (II 20.16-18). The Word of judgment comes under Manasseh (21.10-15): “I will stretch out over Jerusalem the measuring line used against Samaria and the plumb-line used against the house of Ahab. I will wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes out a dish, wiping it and turning it upside-down.” Not even Josiah’s reforms will save Judah. (II 22.15-20)

2 Kings 23.27 is devastating: “So the LORD said, ‘I will remove Judah also from my presence as I removed Israel, and I will reject Jerusalem, the city I chose, and this temple, about which I said, “There shall my Name be.”’”

The kingdom was conditional on obedience, and so it has proved. The Word of the LORD of judgment is fulfilled. It has done so again and again throughout Kings. And in the largest possible scale it is fulfilled, even to the rejection of Jerusalem and the removal of Judah from the presence of the LORD.

And yet there is one final hint that the LORD has not forgotten his unconditional promise to David. Right at the end we, surprisingly, find Jehoiachin, the penultimate king, released from prison in Babylon, priviledged and eating at the king’s table. It is the merest hint, but there is hope still for God’s people and their line of kings.

What is the message of Kings for today?
  1. Obedience and trust, disobedience and unbelief, true worship and idolatry are all painted in vivid characters through the lives of so many of the characters in this narrative. They are all – like Elijah – “men just like us” (James 5.17) and thus examples from which to learn. We should avoid making character studies the main point of Kings, but they are certainly there! Kings gives us examples of obedience and godliness under intense pressure, and also a searching analysis of sin, both in the failures of the relatively righteous and the depravity of wickedness.
  2. The power of the Word of the LORD. It is always fulfilled throughout Kings. It comes through prophets in Kings, but is never controlled by them. Sometimes the fulfilment takes longer than we would expect, but it will be fulfilled. God works in quiet ways (I ch. 19) as well as spectacular (I ch. 18)
  3. We learn much about the nature of God in Kings: his holiness, anger, patience, grace. He will not allow sin to have the ultimate word, either by letting it go unpunished, or by allowing it to triumph over his grace and promise. This is what lies behind the conditional – unconditional tension.
  4. The conditional – unconditional tension is not fully resolved by the end of Kings. The book is thus preparatory for the coming of the true Davidic king through whom God’s promise of an everlasting kingdom to the house of David will be fulfilled.

[1] The Abrahamic covenant is mentioned once (II 13.23) and possible alluded to once more. (I 18.36)

Friday, November 19, 2010


It's been a while since I posted anything bird-related, but I took these videos of a nuthatch yesterday, while in La Granja de San Ildefonso, near Segovia, Spain. Such a beautiful bird!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Luther on prayer being undistracted

I read this helpful quote from John Piper's Brothers, we are not professionals (pp.62-63) today. By the way, this book has just been published in Spanish, which is great news!

Martin Luther was once asked by his barber, "Dr. Luther, how do you pray?" Astonishingly, one of the busiest men of the Reformation wrote a forty-page response for his barber, Peter Beskendorf. His words are a great inspiration for us to beware of sacred substitutes.

"A good clever barber must have his thoughts, mind and eyes concentrated upon the razor and the beard and not forget where he is in his stroke and shave. If he keeps talking or looking around or thinking of something else, he is likely to cut a man's mouth or nose - or even his throat. So anything that is to be done well ought to occupy the whole man with all his faculties and members. As the saying goes: he who thinks of many things thinks of nothing and accomplishes no good. How much more must prayer possess the heart exclusively and completely if it is to be a good prayer!"

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Pilgrims' Destination and Church Life: Alec Motyer on Psalm 122

I'm currently reading through the Psalms of Ascent (120-134) with the help of two books - The Journey by Eugene Peterson and Journey by Alec Motyer. Hmm, I wonder if Tony Blair's A Journey is also about the Psalms of Ascent.

Motyer suggests that the Psalms of Ascent go in groups of three, the first describing a situation of stress and distress, the second focussing on the Lord's power to save, deliver, build and strengthen and the third bringing us home - arriving in the safety of Jerusalem. (Motyer says this works for the first four groups of three, with the fifth being all Zion-centred; I haven't got beyond Psalm 122 yet, but it certainly works for the first triad)

They are Psalms for pilgrims, and thus Psalms for Christians on our journey to the Jerusalem from above, to the New Creation.

Here is some of Motyer on Psalm 122, in which he explains how the vision of our pilgrim destination shapes our church life now. Or, as he puts it, how "our pilgrim goal is also our daily task."

How easily, then we can identify with this psalm. In the dim, distant past, we used to sing a hymn with the chorus lines: We're marching to Zion, beautiful Zion! We're marching to Zion, the beautiful city of God!
 Antiquated? Certainly... True? Oh yes! That is our goal, and the more we set out minds on it, the more enthusiastically we will march on; the more we long for it, the more zealously we will love as if already there (which, in the truest sense, we are); the more we dwell on its glories and on the beauty of the King, the more our hearts will be set on holiness; the more we bring the coming New Heaven and Earth and the ascended Christ into our thinking the more we will live as New Earth people in this old world. People around us may talk about being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly use. Bible in hand, we turn their mockery on its head, for it is only those who have pilgrimage in their hearts who know how to live this earthly life (Psalm 84:5-6); the goal of the Jerusalem to come, the New Heaven and the New Earth, the City of the Lord God and of the Lamb, casts its radiance before it for those who live in its light; the values of the city that is yet to be arm us for living in the city that is now.
 Or, to put it another way, our pilgrim goal is also our daily task. We are on our way to Zion, but we have already come to Zion - and, importantly, to its present location in the local church to which we belong.
When we see even the slightest sliver of a crescent moon, we don't say, 'Oh look, there's part of the moon'; we say, 'Oh look, there's the moon.' In exactly the same way, our aim should be that whoever looks at the tiniest, most insignificant, struggling church should be not only able but compelled to say, 'Oh look, there's the New Jerusalem.'
Yes, the Church is a foretaste of the New Creation. Of course, often it doesn't match up, and tragically so. But let us not the failures rob of us of the ideal, and the goal of shaping our church to life to be those outposts of heaven. In this line, Motyer then goes on to describe the church as a place "where problems are solved."
...In the world, there is adversity (120.1), enmity (120.2), verbal sniping (120.3), deep unsettlement (120.5), antagonism to the ways of peace (120,6-7). In the church there is delightful fellowship, family feeling (122.1,8), a sense of security (122.2), delight in peace and in speaking peace (122.6,8). The church is a place where the problems of the world are solved - and this is not just an essential of our testimony to the watching world, it is for our own enjoyment and healing. It is, of course, what the world needs to see - for why shold anyone want to join a church not worth joining, a company beset by the very problems a person wants to be rid of? But, at the deepest level, it is what believers themselves need: a secure, restful, curative fellowship, a 'time out' from the world, not, negatively, an escapist withdrawal, but, positively, a 'recharging of batteries'.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

How Should We Read the Psalms as Christians?

There are two principal ways we can and ought to read the Psalms as Christians. 

Firstly, we read the Psalms as the prayers and praises of the people of God, addressed to God. They can both speak to us and for us. We can identify with so many of the Psalms as the psalmists speak to God out of a wide range of human experiences. The Psalms both instruct us in our relationship with God and can be used to express that relationship as we pray and sing them.

This approach is the most basic and familiar way we read the psalms as Christians. It is valid and essential, but it is helpful to clarify a couple of points. Firstly, we must not read the Psalms too individualistically. Yes, I can read the Psalms as shaping and expressing my personal relationship with God – but we must be careful not to overemphasise that aspect, because more basic is the communal nature of the Psalter. The very fact that they are grouped together in a collection for use by the people of God attests to that. Secondly, the Psalms should not be read as some kind of general spirituality, as if expressing people’s general religious experience or searching for God. On the one hand, the Psalms are human words addressed to God that are simultaneously God’s Word addressed to humanity. On the other, we need to read the Psalms Christianly, which means christologically, which is our next point.

Secondly, then, we read the Psalms as speaking about the Christ and being fulfilled in Jesus the Christ. It cannot be escaped that many times in the New Testament, the Psalms are interpreted as being about Jesus Christ. There are many specific texts within the Psalms that are fulfilled in Jesus. But reading the Psalms christologically actually works at a deeper level than just considering the specific verses that the NT authors cite.

To start with, there is the overwhelming stamp of David on the Psalms. He is named in the inscriptions 73 times. 13 of those refer to specific events in David’s life. There is a Davidic flavour to the Psalter, which necessarily means that there is a Christological flavour to the psalms, since David is the Christ, he is the anointed king who – in contrast to Saul, and also the later kings – is the paradigmatic king, the king par excellence that God has appointed for his people. However, we need to immediately qualify that last sentence because it is only half-true, for David is flawed (cf. Psalm 51, for instance), he is the starting paradigm for the kind of saviour-king God’s people needs, but a partial, flawed fulfilment of that. What this means is that the Davidic flavour to the Psalms creates a paradigm that needs one greater than David to fulfil. Thus, for example, we find descriptions of ‘the Christ’ which go far beyond anything that we see in David, Solomon or any of the later kings. (e.g. Psalm 2)

A second consideration is in part the result of scholarly studies since Geoffrey Wilson’s The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (1985) which have paid close attention to the shape of the Psalms as a whole book: the structure of the book in 5 books, the general movement that can be detected from lament to praise, the role of the “psalms at the seams” – those at the beginning and ending of the 5 books, etc. John Woodhouse suggests that the theme of David & kingship develops in the 5 books in the following way:

Book 1 (Psalms 1-41)      focus on David, often in trouble from enemies, sometimes rescued from enemies

Book 2 (Psalms 42-72)    David more in background, although lots of Psalms related to David’s life. Ends with David’s prayer for Solomon (72)

Book 3 (Psalms 73-89)    troubles of Israel, psalm 89 promise to David elaborated but not fulfilled . the exact opposite of Psalm 2

Book 4 (Psalms 90-106)  kingship of God celebrated; ends with remembering history of Israel (105, 106)

Book 5 (Psalms 107-150) a return to Davidic psalms; psalm 144 David is king, psalm 145, the Lord is king, conclusion of praise (146-150)

What this suggests is that a key question within the book of Psalms as a whole is precisely the problem of the Christ – the need that God’s people has for God’s King to rule them. This means that the book of Psalms is eschatological, it looks forward to the person who will fulfil that Christ-role.

Since David is so prominent in the Psalms and since he is more than a particularly pious Israelite – he is the Lord’s anointed – we are invited to read the Psalms not firstly from the vantage point of a pious Israelite (or Christian) but from the vantage point of the Lord’s anointed.

This means, for example, that we should be attentive to how the whole book of Psalms is focussed on Christ, not just the obvious psalms that are quoted in the NT. We should read laments such as Psalm 3-7 and ask what paradigm do these psalms set for the life and work of the Christ? Before jumping too quickly to how it relates to my own experience.

The key Christian question, then, in relation to reading the Psalms is to ask, before we ask “what does this say about my/our experience ?”, “what does this say about the Christ’s experience – fulfilled in Jesus?” In fact, asking the Christological question first will enable us to ask the other question (my/our experience) in a better, more fruitful way. When we use the Psalms to shape and express our own faith, prayers and praise, we will be doing so in a profoundly Christ-shaped way; I will be able to relate my struggles to Asaph or David’s struggles through Christ.

Note. Resources which I have found helpful in reflecting on the Psalms: (* = particularly so)
 Ernest Lucas Exploring the Old Testament Volume Three: The Psalms and Wisdom Literature (IVP, 2003)
*Philip S. Johnston and David G. Firth Interpreting the Psalms (Apollos, 2005)
*John Woodhouse The Psalms, David and the Christ (mp3s from The Proclamation Trust)
Gordon Wenham Reading the Psalms (mp3s from Southern Baptist Seminary)

(this post was originally an assignment for the northern training institute)


** Note: I am aiming to get back to blogging again after more than a year away. For a while, I was busy launching a blog in Spanish (, but that ground to a halt too around Christmas time. The plan is to get blogging on both, and also start contributing to **

Given that I continue to receive the occasional (very occasional!) comment that some book review or other post was actually helpful to someone, even though the blog has been dormant for so long, I have been encouraged to return to blogging more regularly. My aim will continue to post quotes or reflections on things I have been reading. They will mostly be things that I have found helpful to me. My desire is to know God better and serve Him more faithfully, I am amazed by the person of Jesus Christ and I want the stuff that appears in this blog to point to Him. I finish this re-opening post with the mottoes for blogging I wrote in a post in February 2007:

learning is for living
learning is for loving

To which can be added 1 Corinthians 8.1b:
"Knowledge puffs up while love builds up."