Monday, December 17, 2012

The English Reformation: Glass Half Empty Part 4

It's not that the reformation in England didn't resume under Queen Elizabeth.  The question seems to be what was the nature of that reformation.  Whereas religion under King Edward was moving into closer identification with that of the continental reform churches, after Mary and under Elizabeth there was a stepping back.  This wasn't so much a reversal as a change of course.  The doctrines of the gospel had again been fully embraced after 1558, but the nature of the Church in its worship had become frozen in a 1549/1552 time frame.  And this was no mere chance of fate, but rather the direction Elizabeth chose.  According to historian Diarmaid MacColluch, ... the plain fact was that the Supreme Governor would not allow the Edwardian Reformation to proceed on its path, at least if it meant structural change to her Church (Cranmer's Ambiguous Legacy).

As documented in Parts 1, 2 & 3, frustration with the pace and even the direction of reform is clearly seen in the letters of John Jewell.  Having returned from Zurich and soon appointed bishop of Salisbury (1559), he became the chief apologist of the reformation in England.  His must have been a difficult path, for all was not well within this second reformation.  Indeed, at Anglican Prayerbook Churchmanship, our friend Hudson Barton conjectures about that frustration and the subsequent unfolding of events with the rise of Puritanism in Elizabeth's England:
... the returning [Marian] exiles expected Elizabeth to receive the Reformation not as her father had established it but as it had subsequently evolved [under Edward]. When she didn't, the reactionary movement of Puritanism was born.
One such moment that may have contributed to that course of events is found in one of John Jewell's letters quoted in Part 3, where he mentions "that little crucifix" of Queen Elizabeth's. That crucifix was in Elizabeth's private chapel and became the subject of an official disputation in 1560.  Interestingly, the two selected to defend the use of the crucifix were the moderate reformer and Marian exile Richard Cox (an interesting choice as he later refused to preach in her chapel because of the crucifix) and Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker.  Parker, had managed to stay in England under the Catholic Queen Mary, a fact that aggravated some of the more ardent Protestants. I don't hold that as something that should necessarily call in question his commitment to reform, but nonetheless I do find it interesting path to pursue.  The two individuals who were selected to make the case against the crucifix were the Marian exile reformers Edmund Grindal and John Jewell.  Below is a lengthy quote from a letter that Jewell wrote to Peter Vermigli on February 5, 1560 which highlights the tension of that moment:
This controversy about the crucifix is now at its height.  You would scarcely believe to what a degree of insanity some persons, who once had some shew of common sense, have carried upon so foolish a subject.  There is not one of them, however, with you you are acquainted, excepting Cox.  A disputation upon this subject will take place to-morrow.  The moderators will be persons selected by the council.  The disputants on the one side are the archbishop of Canterbury, and Cox; and on the other, Grindal the bishop of London, and myself.  The decision rests with the judges.  I smile, however, when I think with what grave and solid reasons they will defend their little cross.  Whatever be the result, I will write to you more at length when the disputation is over; for the controversy is as yet undecided; yet, as far as I can conjecture, I shall not again write to you as a bishop.  For matters are come to that pass, that either the crosses of silver and tin, which we have everywhere broken in pieces, must be restore, or our bishopricks be relinquished.
Although the outward vestiges of Roman Catholic worship were, by and large, eradicated throughout the realm during the years that followed, it was not so where Elizabeth worshipped; yet another piece of evidence that leads one to question the Supreme Governor's level of commitment to Protestant reform.  And one wonders what her example communicated to those clergy in the Church who were less than enthralled with further reform according to the standard of Scripture:
Although Elizabeth's actual beliefs elude us, we are able to get an indication of them from her attitudes and gestures. Her chapels were conservative - the crucifix was displayed, and she also liked candles and music. She disliked long Protestant sermons, but also expressed displeasure at some Catholic rituals such as the elevation of the host, which implied that she rejected the Catholic belief of transubstantiation. She also did not really approve of the clergy marrying as she expressed on several occasions, but as this was an integral aspect of Protestantism, she had to accept it.
Clearly Elizabeth was a mixed bag.

The above take is consistent with MacColluch's assessment - that Elizabeth's 1559 Settlement... began the Church of England's long march away from Cranmer's eucharistic theology - and I would also add that it indicated a preference, or at least a tolerance, for retaining some remnants of the Roman religion.

[Update: Additional thoughts below from our friend Hudson Barton of Anglicans in the Wilderness, 12/18/2012] -

"The year before the "little cross" incident (1559), Jewell, believing that he was defending a clearly defined Protestant Church of England, had challenged the Romanists at St. Paul's Cross to prove their case from Scripture. By 1560, in Jewell's letter to Vermigli, it appears that he expected his involvement with the disputation over the "little cross" would result in a victory for either the Reformation or the Romanists. In that he was willing at this point in his life to lose his bishoprick for the cause of the Reformation, it appears that he was not willing to say "my Queen for better or worse". He had seen the enemy within ("that little cross"), and appeared ready to defend the Church against that enemy, to see it removed at any cost. But history went in an unexpected direction. The little cross was not removed but only hidden away, and Jewell kept his bishoprick.

"The genius of Elizabeth was that she was able to turn the argument of the "little cross" on its head, convincing Reformers like Jewell that the purity of the Church was not compromised by so small a matter. I believe this was the advice of Whitgift and Parker, to settle with the Queen, to close their eyes and continue about the Church business as if the problem didn't exist. Two years later, in 1562, Jewell published his "Apologia ecclesiae Anglicanae", and sure enough the "little cross" had been forgotten. Jewell's Apology became the official defense of the CofE because the establishment knew that it was not a defense of a set of principles, but rather of an institution.

"I am reminded of the Danish fairy tale of "The Princess and the Pea", how a real princess will detect the smallest abnormality in her realm and never rest until it is removed."

Friday, December 14, 2012

Sanctification & Justification: Separate but Equal?


Or something like that. There continues to be quite a bit of confusion (always has been - always will, I suppose) on this topic, but this post of Tullian's Here is really good, helping to clarify the relationship between these two doctrines.  Also our friend, Dr. R. Scott Clark is clearing away much of the fog Here and here.

It seems to me that part of the confusion is the notion that when talking about our sanctification we shouldn’t be talking about our justification, otherwise… otherwise what? If we bring justification into the mix that will undermine our sanctification? But wait! Isn’t it fair to say that our justification is the very ground upon which we live and walk the sanctified life? So, as I am sanctified I can never leave my justification (what Christ Jesus secured for me on the cross ) anymore then when I walk to the store I can somehow leave the ground of the sidewalk. Not a perfect analogy, but… Every sanctified movement rests upon the ground of our justification.

The old hymn reads, On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand… I don’t think this speaks of conversion, but living the Christian life. Calvin concisely puts it this way:
“In short, I affirm, that not by our own merit but by faith alone, are both our persons and works justified; and that the justification of works depends on the justification of the person, as the effect on the cause.” (John Calvin, Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote)
There's no work of ours sanctified except by the blood of Jesus shed for us (Heb. 10). His finished work then is the basis by which our good works, with their yet remaining imperfections, are purified; causing them (and us) to be acceptable to God by grace through faith in Christ.

Update [12-16-2012]:
Eph. 2:8-10. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Salvation is completely of God, by God’s grace, through faith alone in Christ alone. None of our own doings contribute to this gift from God. Not one of our best works adds to the saving work that Jesus completed on the cross for His people. Yet we work. And in sanctification, we do acts of goodness that are pleasing and acceptable in Christ to God; works He prepared way back in the counsel of His will that we should walk in. So there is effort, there is resisting sin, there is walking in new paths of righteousness, loving God and neighbor. But those efforts are the fruit of His Spirit, the ordained result of an already graciously and completely secured salvation in Christ Jesus for us. Thus we have no boast or glorying except in the Lord.

We are thankful for those who, like Tullian and Scott Clark, unashamedly and clearly proclaim the gospel of God; “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Rom. 1:16)

Monday, December 10, 2012

The English Reformation: Glass Half Empty? Part 3

... a little leaven leavens the whole lump (1 Cor. 5:6b)

Supreme Governor of the Church
Fast forward through the reign of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary to that of her half-sister Elizabeth:  Protestantism has been restored, but what course did the Church of England take once it again embraced the religion of Cranmer? How one answers that question is determined, in part, by whether one sees the restoration of the church under Elizabeth as a glass half-or-more-full or a glass half-empty.  I fall into the latter camp, despite that many of the Edwardian reforms were restored and the gospel was being freely preached and received.  The problem, in my view, was that the Church under Elizabeth ceased being a church that, above all, sought to conform itself to Scripture alone.  The establishment and maintenance of peace, both domestically and internationally, was once again in the mix.  And that ingredient always involved political and pragmatic calculations.

In the previous two posts, I've noted three particular situations that impeded the progress of reform in England - 1) the Monarch as Head or Supreme Governor of the Church, 2) the presence of a large body (possibly majority) of bishops that leaned covertly or overtly towards Rome, and 3) the lack of gospel preaching clergy.  Unlike the period of King Henry's rule, under Boy-King Edward the first circumstance was not much of an issue.  But when Elizabeth took the throne this changed.  Though a confirmed Protestant and now Supreme Governor of the Church, which theoretically bode well for further reforms, Elizabeth was nonetheless queen over the realm of England, responsible for both its domestic and diplomatic well-being.  How she proceeded to rule was to return the state of reform visa-vis the Monarch to that of a mixed bag.  In addition, many of the conservative bishops were also members of the upper house of Parliament.  In these two entities of government, the reformation was thus faced with a mixture of state and church that ensured right doctrine and biblical truth would not always carry the day in ecclesial matters.
The historical record certainly shows that under Queen Elizabeth many strides were taken towards strengthening Protestantism in England.  Those accomplishments are fairly well known, especially among reformed Anglicans.  Rather than focus on those advancements, my concern is with those things that kept the glass half empty, i.e. slowed or detoured reform in England.  For by the time of Archbishop Laud, the Church of England had gone in a direction that Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley would hardly have identified with.  What happened was that the reformation, rather than picking up where it left off under Cranmer, was slowed in its tracks and even diverted by events under Queen Elizabeth and those that followed.  From Diarmaid MacCulloch (article here):
... At home, Elizabeth wanted to conciliate conservatives [i.e. those who preferred a more medieval church practice]; abroad, she wanted to conciliate suspicious Catholic Spain and France, and also to win friends among the Lutheran princes of Germany and Scandinavia, who were increasingly hostile to the Calvinist and other Reformed Churches to their south. At the same time, however, she was identified with the Protestant cause by her birth... Elizabeth herself shows signs of having preferred his discredited first Prayer Book of 1549 to his second of 1552, but virtually no-one at the time agreed with her: to reintroduce 1549 was not practical politics.
Elizabeth's solution to her dilemmas was remarkable: quite deliberately, she established what proved to he a snapshot, frozen in time, of the Church as it had been in September 1552, ignoring the progress made in further changing the Church of England after that date. 
Who were the "conservatives" of which MacCulloch refers, the ones whom Elizabeth wanted to conciliate? According to ecclesiastical historian, Dom Henry Norbert Birt (1861-1919):
After a careful study of all available sources of information he estimates the number of [Catholic] priests holding livings in England at Elizabeth's accession at 7500 (p. 162). A large number, forming the majority of these, accepted, though unwillingly, the new state of things, and according to tradition many of them were in the habit of celebrating Mass early and of reading the Church of England service later on Sunday morning. (citation here)
This gives insight to the concerns regarding the advancement of reform of recently arrived Marian exiles such as John Jewell who wrote, in his first letter upon returning, to Peter Martyr on March 20, 1559:
Reformer John Jewell
The bishops are a great hindrance to us; for being, as you know, among the nobility and leading men in the upper house, and having none there on our side to expose their artifices and falsehoods by word of mouth... The queen, meanwhile, though see openly favours our cause, yet is wonderfully afraid of allowing and innovations:  this is owing partly to the influence of count Feria, a Spaniard, and Philip's ambassador.  She is, however, prudently, and firmly, and piously following up her purpose, though somewhat more slowly than we could wish.
Jewell's last comment can be understood to show that, in his (hopeful?) estimation, Elizabeth was a committed Protestant and yet, due to her responsibilities of State, she was reluctant to allow the progress of reform too quickly and, as later events would show, proceed too far.  In a series of letters to Martyr, he continues with his assessment of the Church's situation:
... yet the people everywhere, and especially the whole of the nobility, are both disgusted with their [bishop's] insolent exultation, and exceedingly thirsting for the gospel.  Hence it has happened that the mass in many places has of itself fallen to the ground, without any laws for its discontinuance.  If the queen herself would but banish is from her private chapel, the whole thing might easily be got rid of.  Of such importance among us are the examples of princes.  For whatever is done after the example of the sovereign, the people, as you well know, suppose to be done rightly. (3rd letter, April 14, 1559)
For our queen is now thinking of the league of Smalcald; but there is one who writes to her from Germany [ a former and now exiled bishop], that this can by no means be brought about, if you [Vermigli] should return to us... But however this may be, we have exhibited to the queen all our articles of religion and doctrine, and have not departed in the slightest degree from the confession of Zurich... (4th letter, April 28, 1559)
 For we are all of us hitherto as strangers at home...  As to religion, it has been effected, I hope, under good auspices, that it shall be restored to the same state as it was during your latest residence among us, under Edward.  But, as far as I can perceive at present, there is not the same alacrity among our friends, as there lately was among the papists... and those very things which you and I so often laughed at are now seriously and solemnly entertained by certain persons (for we are not consulted(, as if the christian religion could not exist without something tawdry...  Others are seeking after a golden, or, as it rather seems to me, a leaden mediocrity; and are crying out, that the half is better than the whole. (5th letter, undated)
 As the 5th letter reveals, there were many among the Protestants those who desired only limited reforms to the church.  This was to set the stage, as it seems to me,  for a continued struggle within the Church of England for the next 100 years.

On May 20, 1559 Queen Elizabeth signed the Act of Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity.  According to Diarmaid MacCulloch, "One of the most striking features of Elizabeth's 1559 Settlement was that it began the Church of England's long march away from Cranmer's eucharistic theology, if only in small details... The clarity of Cranmer's sacramental intentions was undermined by restoring to the communion service the 1549 formulae of administering bread and wine to communicants which he had replaced in 1552... This, the omission of the 'black rubric', and a baffling instruction that the permissible ornaments and vestments of the Church were those in use in the year before the 1549 Prayer Book was authorised" were the backdrop of several more letters by Jewell to Bullinger and Martyr which highlighted the headwinds that he and the true friends of reform faced:
For we have at this time to contend not only with those of our friends, who of late years have fallen away from us, and gone over to the opposite party; who are now opposing us with a bitterness and obstinacy far exceeding that of any common enemy... (Bullinger-May 22, 1559)
 The bishops, rather than abandon the pope, whom they so often abjured, are willing to submit to everything.  Not, however, that they do so for the sake of religion, of which they have none; but for the sake of consistency, which the miserable knaves now choose to call their consciences. (Martyr-August 1, 1559)
She was altogether desirous that you should be all means be invited to England, that,as you formerly tilled, as it were, the university by your lectures, so again you might water it by the same, now it is in so disordered and wretched a condition.  But since then, the deliberations about Saxony and the embassy from Smalcald have put an end to those counsels. (Martyr-November 5, 1559)
Religion among us is in the same state which I have often described to you before.  The doctrine is everywhere most pure, bu, as to ceremonies and maskings, there is a little too much foolerly.  That little silver cross of ill-omen origin, still maintains its place in the queen's chapel.  Wretched me! this thing will soon be drawn into a precedent. (November 16, 1559)
There's more to the story of "that little silver cross" of Queen Elizabeth's, but for now it's worth noting those last words of Jewell were prescient in light of the eventual drift that occurred back toward a medieval high church Eucharistic practice among those such as Laud and the Tractarians of the 1800s who birthed the Anglo-Catholic movement.

[all italics added]

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The English Reformation: Glass Half Empty? Pt. 2

The question posed in the last post was - How deep, thorough, and on-going was the English reformation during the period before and after Queen Mary's reign?  When Queen Mary took the throne in 1553, the English church had been on the path of reform.  Yet that reform was far from over.  The 1552 prayer book had just been issued, eliminating those 1549 prayers and liturgical practices which could still be interpreted as to allow a Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation, the sacrifice of the the Mass, and sacerdotalism.  This was evidence of Thomas Cranmer's commitment to continuing reforms.  At this point, the English reformation, far from complete, was in many ways still in an early stage.  Arguably, Cranmer had envisioned further changes.

The reformation of the church had accelerated under Edward, more so than with King Henry.  No longer was there the religious/political calculations and oversight of King Henry which Cranmer had to contend with and navigate.  Still, there were two situations which existed that especially slowed things down.  One was the lack of able preachers in the church.  This situation would come into play years later resulting in a confrontation between Queen Elizabeth and bishop Edmund Grindal.  The other circumstance was  the existence of a large party, even a majority, of bishops that opposed the reforms being enacted. From Oxford, Peter Vermigli wrote to Rudolph Gualter in a letter dated June 1, 1550:
"There is no lack of preachers in London, but throughout the whole kingdom they are very, very rare...  The sheep of the divine pasture, the sheep of God's hand, the shep redeemed by the blood of Christ, are defrauded of their proper nourishment of the divine word; unless the people be taught, the change of religion will certainly avail them but little."
Earlier that year in January, he had written of the second concern in a letter to Henric Bullinger:
"... respecting the progress of Christ's kingdom in this country...  The sum however is this, that many things yet remain to be done, which we have in expectation rather than in reality.  The perverseness of the bishops is incredible; they oppose us with all their might:  yet some of that order, though very few, are favorable to the undertaking."
 The same determined resistance of the Roman Catholic leaning bishops that Cranmer had experienced under Henry continued during the Edwardian years despite the Archbishop's faithful labors.  Vermigli continues:
"The labour of the most reverend, the archbishop of Canterbury is not to be expressed.  For whatever has hitherto been wrested from them [i.e. the bishops] we have acquired solely by the industry, and activity of this prelate."
So a picture emerges from these accounts of a church out of balance; an episcopacy very much at odds with itself.  The continued presence of Rome-leaning clergy ensured that once the new Catholic Queen took the throne the Cranmerian reforms would be quickly reversed.  Though significant, the Gospel advances in the church had yet not gone very deep.  This conclusion is all too apparent in comments Vermigli made to Bullinger in a December 15, 1553 letter from Strasbourg, four months after Mary came to power.  He wrote that transubstantiation had been easily reinstated due to the fact that those opposing it were overwhelmed by the number favoring it.  From which we can surmise that much of the hierarchy of the Church had remained untouched by the reformation, or only superficially so.  And under the new Roman Catholic monarch, they had moved quickly to reverse the progress of the previous years.

Additionally, there's a sad irony to the events of 1547-1552.  Cranmer had not been one inclined to use the power of the State to enforce reform.  His attitude to those opposing the Gospel reforms are summed up in these words of his:
"What will ye have man do to him that is not yet come to knowledge of the truth of the Gospel?...  Shall we perhaps, in his journey coming towards us, by severity and cruel behavior overthrow hi, and as it were in his viage stop him?  I take not this the way to allure me to embrace the doctrine of the Gospel.  And if it be a true rule of our Savior Christ to do good for evil, then let such as are not yet come to favor our religion learn to follow the doctrine of the Gospel by our example in using them friendly and charitably." (from Ashley Null)
So, had he ignored his own advice, he might have purged the church of his opponents.  Indeed some were removed, the most prominent example being bishop Stephen Gardiner who spent over five years in prison and yet reemerged in 1553.  Had Cranmer acted ruthlessly, one possible result might have been a much stronger resistance to Roman Catholicism being reinstated under Mary.  Yet having chosen the better part, Cranmer, by and large, refused to battle according to flesh and blood.  And thus it turned out that some of the very opponents of reform who had been left untouched later led the charge against him at his trial, leading to his death.  And from what I can tell, many of these clergy and bishops remained in their positions even after Elizabeth took the throne, guaranteeing further institutional resistance to the reform efforts that followed.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The English Reformation: Glass Half Empty? Pt. 1



​The topic of this and, hopefully, the next couple of posts is to take a brief look at the English reformation prior to Queen Mary’s ascension and the period following Queen Elizabeth’s enthronement. The question I pose is - How deep, thorough, and on-going was the English reformation during this period of time considering the trials that transpired over the next 100 years?

The conventional and yet, I would submit, questionable understanding of the years 1547 to 1553 under King Edward is that it was a time of robust and unimpeded advancement in reforming the Church's doctrine and practice. Certainly, to a significant extent, this was indeed the case. Over the course of those years Archbishop Thomas Cranmer had introduced a reformed liturgy of worship in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and the subsequent and further reformed 1552 version. 1547 saw the first Book of Homilies published to aid the teaching and preaching of the Gospel doctrines in a country lacking clergy fluent in that very Gospel. A reformed confession of faith, The Forty-Two Articles, was completed in 1552 and issued in 1553. That confession embodied the redemptive teachings of Scripture emphasized by the reformers: Salvation of sinful man was by God’s grace alone, through faith only, in Jesus Christ and his finished work alone.


Yet, those Gospel advancements in England were far from universally accepted within Church and State. There had long been a persistant Roman Catholic party of bishops throughout Cranmer’s service as Archbishop which had resisted the reforms he sought under King Henry (1533-1547).  In his biography of Cranmer, Diarmaid MacCulloch chronicles a see-saw battle which ensued during those years between the Evangelicals under Cranmer and the Conservative Roman Catholic party in which bishop Stephen Gardiner played a prominent role. One could accurately describe the progress of the reformation in England during that time as a repetitive dance of three steps forward and two steps back. And unfortunately that frustrating struggle did not cease during the "golden" years following Henry’s death under the youthful King Edward.

In 1547, Cranmer then invited the influential Italian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli to England to help further the English reformation. The next year, after accepting the offer, he was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford.  Over the next five years, Vermigli played a role in which he made significant contributions to the reformation of the Church. Yet interestingly we find that, during his first year at Oxford, he wrote a letter to the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer (December 26, 1548) in which he expresses his concern regarding the "popish party" and their opinion of Archbishop Cranmer:
“... they till now were wont to traduce [Cranmer] as a man ignorant of theology, and as being only conversant with matters of government; but now, believe me, he has shewn himself so mighty a theologian against them as they would rather not have proof of, and they are compelled, against their inclination, to acknowledge his learning, and power and dexterity in debate.”
Peter-Martyr, hoping that Bucer would come to England to aid in the reformed cause, continues with his assessment of the situation under Edward visa-vis the reformation, and alludes to what is holding back further reforms:
“... because the magistracy, like yours, is altogether disposed to the reformation of the church, but with very few exception, does not possess the proper instruments for that object.”
Two things can be inferred from the above quotes. There was significant Romish opposition among many of the clergy and bishops to the reforms Cranmer sought. And there was a lack of able preachers and teachers to effectively dispose of that opposition by means of magnifying the evangelical truths of the Reformation. Later, in a letter to Henric Bullinger, Vermigli verifies this inference, as well as noting the problem he saw with some in the Church who wanted only partial reform:
“There are certainly very many obstacles; especially the number of our adversaries, the lack of preachers, and the gross vices of those who profess the gospel; besides the worldly prudence of some parties who think it quite right that religion should be purified, but are willing only to make as few alterations as possible; for feeling as they do, and thinking as civilians, they consider that any great changes would be dangerous to the state.”
This Erastian mindset, which existed among many of the Civil and Church rulers (i.e. how the reformation of the church posed a potential risk to the State), unfortunately had a dampening effect on reform not only during Henry’s reign but to a significant extent in that of Elizabeth’s.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

From wretchedness to self-abhorrency...

Following up on the last post, Wretched thoughts, here now are some self-abhorrent considerations:

From John Owen's Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit,
Book IV:

Besides, there is no notion of sin and holiness whereof believers have a more sensible, spiritual experience; for although they may not or do not comprehend the metaphysical notion or nature of this pollution and defilement of sin, yet they are sensible of the effects it produceth in their minds and consciences. They find that in sin which is attended with shame and self-abhorrency, and requires deep abasement of soul. They discern in it, or in themselves on the account of it, an unsuitableness unto the holiness of God, and an unfitness thereon for communion with him...

... That the pollution of sin is that property of it whereby it is directly opposed unto the holiness of God, and which God expresseth his holiness to be contrary unto. Hence he is said to be “of purer eyes than to behold evil, or to look on iniquity,” Habbakuk 1:13. It is a thing vile and loathsome unto the eyes of his holiness, Psalm 5:4-6. So, speaking concerning it, he useth that pathetical dehortation, “Oh, do not this abominable thing that I hate,” Jeremiah 44:4. And with respect unto his own holiness it is that he sets it forth by the names of all things which are vile, filthy, loathsome, offensive, — everything that is abominable. It is so to him, as he is infinitely pure and holy in his own nature. And that consideration which ingenerates shame and self-abhorrency on the account of the defilement of sin is taken peculiarly from the holiness of God...

... But in all others, who have more light and spiritual sense, it produceth shame and self-abhorrency, which hath always a respect unto the holiness of God; as Job 42:5,6. They see that in sin which is so vile, base, and filthy, and which renders them so, that, like unto men under a loathsome disease, they are not able to bear the sight of their own sores, Psalm 38:5.God detesteth, abhorreth, and turneth from sin as a loathsomething, and man is filled with shame for it; it is, therefore, filthy. Yea, no tongue can express the sense which a believing soul hath of the uncleanness of sin with respect unto the holiness of God. And this may suffice to give a little prospect into the nature of this defilement of sin, which the Scripture so abundantly insisteth on, and which all believers are so sensible of...

... Our want of due answering unto the holiness of God, as represented in the law, and exemplified in our hearts originally, is a principal part and universal cause of our whole pollution and defilement by sin; for when our eyes are opened to discern it, this is that which in the first place filleth us with shame and self-abhorrency, and that which makes us so unacceptable, yea, so loathsome to God. Who is there who considereth aright the vanity, darkness, and ignorance of his mind, the perverseness and stubbornness of his will, with the disorder, irregularity, and distemper of his affections, with respect unto things spiritual and heavenly, who is not ashamed of, who doth not abhor himself? This is that which hath given our nature its leprosy, and defiled it throughout. And I shall crave leave to say, that he who hath no experience of spiritual shame and self-abhorrency, upon the account of this inconformity of his nature and the faculties of his soul unto the holiness of God, is a great stranger unto this whole work of sanctification...

... Something, indeed, of this kind will be wrought by the power of natural conscience, awakened and excited by ordinary outward means of conviction; for wherever there is a sense of guilt, there will be some kind of sense of filth, as fear and shame are inseparable. But this sense alone will never guide us to the blood of Christ for cleansing. Such a sight and conviction of it as may fill us with self-abhorrency and abasement, as may cause us to loathe ourselves for the abomination that is in it, is required of us; and this is the work of the Holy Ghost, belonging to that peculiar conviction of sin which is from him alone, John 16:8. I mean that self-abhorrency, shame, and confusion of face, with respect unto the filth of sin, which is so often mentioned in the Scripture as a gracious duty; as nothing is a higher aggravation of sin than for men to carry themselves with a carnal boldness with God and in his worship, whilst they are unpurged from their defilements. In a sense hereof the publican stood afar off, as one ashamed and destitute of any confidence for a nearer approach. So the holy men of old professed to God that they blushed, and were ashamed to lift up their faces unto him...

... Such was that in Adam, immediately after his fall; and such is that which God so frequently calls open and profligate sinners unto, — a shame accompanied with dread and terror, and from which the sinner hath no relief, unless in such sorry evasions as our first parents made use of. And, (2.) There is a shame which is evangelical, arising from a mixed apprehension of the vileness of sin and the riches of God’s grace in the pardon and purifying of it; for although this latter gives relief against all terrifying, discouraging effects of shame, yet it increaseth those which tend to genuine self-abasement and abhorrency. And this God still requires to abide in us, as that which tends to the advancement of his grace in our hearts. This is fully expressed by the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 16:60- 63,
“I will remember my covenant with thee in the days of thy youth, and I will establish unto thee an everlasting covenant. Then thou shalt remember thy ways, and be ashamed. And I will establish my covenant with thee; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD: that thou mayest remember, and be confounded, and never open thy mouth any more because of thy shame, when I am pacified toward thee for all that thou hast done, saith the Lord GOD.”

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Wretched thoughts...


Do we need to forbid the use of the term wretched as a valid descriptor of the sinner/saint?  Though some may think so, I hope not.  Does its use mislead and draw the elect away from the truth of who they are in Christ?  I think not.  The term seems, at times, to be an apt biblical description of the Christian's very real anguish regarding how far he is from actual righteous living.  The word, as used by the apostle Paul in the last half of Romans 7, is more of a reflection on the plight of the continual struggle against our own sinfulness in light of God's saving grace than some downer-definition of our being.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Though fallen, we are creatures made in the image of God.  Even more, as Christians we are children of God and joint heirs with Christ.  Yet it is the very glorious gift of having been made new creatures in Christ (forgiven, adopted of God with new hearts) coupled with the continuing reality of sin within, i.e. we too often still choose to sin, which leads one to cry, "O wretched man that I am..."  And yet thankfully, more than just that phrase comes into view from God's word. One finds the triumphant answer of good news which follows in Rom 8: 1 - There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!  Though still a sinner, the Christian can take it to the bank that one who is in Christ Jesus stands fully Justified (no condemnation) before God for Christ's sake apart from any works now and forever.  Or as Paul puts the same truth in another epistle, a sinner is fully saved by grace through faith, and that not of himself (Eph. 2:8-9).  It is this transforming and sanctifying Gospel that Paul calls "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16).

I sometimes think that as modern Christians we have become unconsciously affected by the self-esteem movement of the last 40 years and thus shrink back from certain blunt biblical language which is used to describe God's people in light of their fallen state (see Is. 41:14).  We seem to want to minimize and sanitize our sinful natures, put on blinders, and adopt what is basically a heavenly-transformed-only-view regarding our status as children of God. I'm forgiven!  I'm a new creature in Christ!  Don't confuse things by bringing up the present reality of my sin... But though saved, we nonetheless are still actively fallen sinners.  We are Christians who all too often choose to sin real sins.  Regarding this Ursinus writes in his Heidelberg Commentary:
The reasons, on account of which the will in this third degree chooses and does in part both the good and the evil, are the following: 1. Because the mind and will of those who are regenerated, are not fully perfectly renewed in this life. There are many remains of depravity which cleave to the best of men, as long as they continue in the flesh, so that the works which they perform are imperfect, and defiled with sin. “I know that in me, (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing.” (Rom. 7:18) 2. Because those who are regenerated are not always governed by the Holy Spirit; but are sometimes forsaken of God for a season, that he may thus either try, or humble them. Yet, although they are thus left to themselves for a time, they do not finally perish, for God, in his own time and way, calls them to repentance. “Take not thy Holy Spirit from me.” “0 Lord, why hast thou made us to err from thy ways, and hardened our heart from thy fear. Return, for thy servant’s sake.” (Ps. 5 1:13, Isa. 63:17) In short, after regeneration, there is a proneness to choose partly the good, and partly the evil. There is a proneness to the good, because the mind and will being illuminated and changed, begin, in some measure, to be turned to the good, and to commence new obedience. There is a proneness to the evil, because the saints are only imperfectly renewed in this life—retain many infirmities and evil desires, on account of original sin, which still cleaves to them. Hence the good works which they perform are not perfectly good.
Therefore if “I know that in me, (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing” (Rom. 7:18), then it is indeed fair to say "O wretched man that I am."  And yet transcending that burden is the glorious truth of God's abundant grace in Christ Jesus, i.e. the salvation of the ungodly.  Which causes us to confess with David (Rom. 4:6-8) that of Him we are truly blessed.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Calvin on "born of water and the Spirit"

John Calvin's Commentary on the Gospel of John 3:

verse 5- 6
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

"Chrysostom, with whom the greater part of expounders agree, makes the word Water refer to baptism. The meaning would then be, that by baptism we enter into the kingdom of God, because in baptism we are regenerated by the Spirit of God. Hence arose the belief of the absolute necessity of baptism, in order to the hope of eternal life. But though we were to admit that Christ here speaks of baptism, yet we ought not to press his words so closely as to imagine that he confines salvation to the outward sign; but, on the contrary, he connects the Water with the Spirit, because under that visible symbol he attests and seals that   newness of life which God alone produces in us by his Spirit. It is true that, by neglecting baptism, we are excluded from salvation; and in this sense I acknowledge that it is necessary; but it is absurd to speak of the hope of salvation as confined to the sign. So far as relates to this passage, I cannot bring myself to believe that Christ   speaks of baptism; for it would have been inappropriate.

"We must always keep in remembrance the design of Christ, which we have already explained; namely, that he intended to exhort Nicodemus to newness of life, because he was not capable of receiving the Gospel, until he began to be a new man. It is, therefore, a simple statement, that we must be born again, in order that we may be the children of God, and that the Holy Spirit is the Author of this second birth. For while Nicodemus was dreaming of the regeneration (palingenesia) or transmigration taught by Pythagoras, who imagined that souls, after the death of their bodies, passed into other bodies, [58] Christ, in order to cure him of this error, added, by way of explanation, that it is not in a natural way that men are born a second time, and that it is not necessary for them to be clothed with a new body, but that they are born when they are renewed in mind and heart by the grace of the Spirit.  

"Accordingly, he employed the words Spirit and water to mean the same thing, and this ought not to be regarded as a harsh or forced interpretation; for it is a frequent and common way of speaking in Scripture, when the Spirit is mentioned, to add the word Water or Fire, expressing his power. We sometimes meet with the statement, that it is Christ who baptizeth with the Holy Ghost and with fire, (Matthew 3:11;   Luke 3:16,) where fire means nothing different from the Spirit, but only shows what is his efficacy in us. As to the word water being placed first, it is of little consequence; or rather, this mode of speaking flows more naturally than the other, because the metaphor is followed by a plain and direct statement, as if Christ had said that no man is a son of God until he has been renewed by water, and that this water is the Spirit who cleanseth us anew and who, by spreading his energy over us, imparts to us the rigor of the heavenly life, though by nature we are utterly dry. And most properly does Christ, in order to reprove Nicodemus for his ignorance, employ a form of expression which is common in Scripture; for Nicodemus ought at length to have acknowledged, that what Christ had said was taken from the ordinary doctrine of the Prophets.  

"By water, therefore, is meant nothing more than the inward purification and invigoration which is produced by the Holy Spirit. Besides, it is not unusual to employ the word and instead of that is, when the latter   clause is intended to explain the former. And the view which I have taken is supported by what follows; for when Christ immediately proceeds to assign the reason why we must be born again, without mentioning the water, he shows that the newness of life which he requires is produced by the Spirit alone; whence it follows, that water must not be separated from the Spirit.

"6. That which is born of the flesh. By reasoning from contraries, he argues that the kingdom of God is shut against us, unless an entrance be opened to us by a new birth, (palingenesia ) For he takes for granted, that we cannot enter into the kingdom of God unless we are   spiritual. But we bring nothing from the womb but a carnal nature. Therefore it follows, that we are naturally banished from the kingdom of God, and, having been deprived of the heavenly life, remain under the yoke of death. Besides, when Christ argues here, that men must be born again, because they are only flesh, he undoubtedly comprehends all mankind under the term flesh. By the flesh, therefore, is meant in this place not the body, but the soul also, and consequently every part of it. When the Popish divines restrict the word to that part which they call sensual, they do so in utter ignorance of its meaning; [59] for Christ must in that case have used an inconclusive argument, that we   need a second birth, because part of us is corrupt. But if the flesh is contrasted with the Spirit, as a corrupt thing is contrasted with what is uncorrupted, a crooked thing with what is straight, a polluted thing with what is holy, a contaminated thing with what is pure, we may readily conclude that the whole nature of man is condemned by a single word. Christ therefore declares that our understanding and reason is corrupted, because it is carnal, and that all the affections of the heart are wicked and reprobate, because they too are carnal.  

"But here it may be objected, that since the soul is not begotten by human generation, we are not born of the flesh, as to the chief part of our nature. This led many persons to imagine that not only our bodies, but our souls also, descend to us from our parents; for they thought it absurd that original sin, which has its peculiar habitation in the soul, should be conveyed from one man to all his posterity, unless all our souls proceeded from his soul as their source. And certainly, at first sight, the words of Christ appear to convey the idea, that we are   flesh, because we are born of flesh. I answer, so far as relates to the words of Christ, they mean nothing else than that we are all carnal   when we are born; and that as we come into this world mortal men, our nature relishes nothing but what is flesh. He simply distinguishes here between nature and the supernatural gift; for the corruption of all mankind in the person of Adam alone did not proceed from generation, but from the appointment of God, who in one man had adorned us all, and who has in him also deprived us of his gifts. Instead of saying, therefore, that each of us draws vice and corruption from his parents, it would be more correct to say that we are all alike corrupted in Adam alone, because immediately after his revolt God took away from human nature what He had bestowed upon it.  

"Here another question arises; for it is certain that in this degenerate and corrupted nature some remnant of the gifts of God still lingers; and hence it follows that we are not in every respect corrupted. The reply is easy. The gifts which God hath left to us since the fall, if they are judged by themselves, are indeed worthy of praise; but as the contagion of wickedness is spread through every part, there will be found in us nothing that is pure and free from every defilement. That we naturally possess some knowledge of God, that some distinction between good and evil is engraven on our conscience, that our faculties are sufficient for the maintenance of the present life, that -- in short -- we are in so many ways superior to the brute beasts, that is excellent in itself, so far as it proceeds from God; but in us all these things are completely polluted, in the same manner as the wine which has been wholly infected and corrupted by the offensive taste of the vessel loses the pleasantness of its good flavor, and acquires a bitter and pernicious taste. For such knowledge of God as now remains in men is nothing else than a frightful source of idolatry and of all superstitions; the judgment exercised in choosing and distinguishing things is partly blind and foolish, partly imperfect and confused; all the industry that we possess flows into vanity and trifles; and the will itself, with furious impetuosity, rushes headlong to what is evil. Thus in the whole of our nature there remains not a drop of   uprightness. Hence it is evident that we must be formed by the second birth, that we may be fitted for the kingdom of God; and the meaning of Christ's words is, that as a man is born only carnal from the womb of   his mother; he must be formed anew by the Spirit, that he may begin to be spiritual.  

"The word Spirit is used here in two senses, namely, for grace, and the effect of grace. For in the first place, Christ informs us that the Spirit of God is the only Author of a pure and upright nature, and afterwards he states, that we are spiritual, because we have been renewed by his power."








Friday, September 28, 2012

Jesus and Justification

Is the doctrine of forensic justification an innovation of the Reformation?  Something that was formulated by Martin Luther as a result of his struggles with sin and an overly active guilty conscience?  A lot of digital ink has been used up at various blogs over the last several months on this question.  Those of Roman Catholic persuasion believe that Reformed Christians are overly forensic in their interpretation of this doctrine and thus are not being consistent with Jesus' teaching in the Gospels, not to mention that of the entire New Testament.  I'm not going to rehash the arguments here.  Rather, I want to offer up some relevant thoughts from John Fesko's book Justification - Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine.

Dr. Fesko shows that Scripture teaches justification is indeed forensic and a concept not foreign to Jesus.  Even though the doctrine is not fully explained in the Gospels, this shouldn't cause one to dismiss the apostle Paul's more extensive teaching. One can prematurely draw a wrong conclusion by requiring a fully developed doctrine from the mouth of Christ.  As J. Gresham Machen wrote in The Origin of Paul's Religion, Jesus for Paul was primarily not a Revealer, but a Savior.  So then, what one finds in chapter eight of the book is a section having to do with the law-court aspect of justification in which Dr. Fesko highlights Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector to show Christ's own use of the term.  Fesko writes that justification
is about the verdict that God passes upon the person who stands in his presence, the verdict of guilty or innocent.  This theme of standing before the tribunal of God is found in the OT:  "Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked" (Ex. 23:7; Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15).  God will not acquit the wicked, which is why Paul explains that Abraham receives his righteous status by faith alone.  Moreover, God imputes the obedience, or righteousness, of Christ to Abraham.  This interpretation is also confirmed by Christ's use of the term "justification."
Christ explains in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector the nature of justification and how it relates to righteousness:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. (Luke 18:9-14)
Notice that Christ uses the parable against those who trusted in themselves, who thought they were righteous or innocent before God and loyal to the Torah.  In this parable Christ describes the Pharisee... in terms of the general commands of Torah: thievery, injustice, adultery, fasting, and tithing.  It is in these term of Torah observance that some of the Jews thought they were righteous.
Fitzmyer observes that this parable shows that Christ - recognized that righteousness in God's sight was not to be achieved by boasting or even by self-confident activity (either the avoidance of evil or the striving for good in the observance of Mosaic and Pharisaic regulations).  This saying about justification is important for it may reveal that the NT teaching about the matter is somehow rooted in Jesus' own attitude and teaching: One achieves uprightness before God not by one's own activity but by a contrite recognition of one's own sinfulness before him.  Hence, "the Pauline doctrine of justification has its roots in the teaching of Jesus."
For these reasons Paul makes statements like "a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ: (Gal. 2:16), to counter the idea that a person is righteous by being obedient to the Torah.  By contrast, the tax collector who sought the mercy of God and the forgiveness of sins was justified before the tribunal of God... (pp. 237-240)

Thomas Cranmer's legacy...

A fascinating essay, Cranmer's Ambiguous Legacy by Diarmaid MacCulloch, looks at the woulda coulda shoulda had the Lady Jane Grey taken the throne instead of Queen Mary after the death of Edward VI, and thus leaving Archbishop Cranmer alive to continue the English reformation.  MacCulloch, a first-rate historian and scholar who authored the exceptional biography Thomas Cranmer - A Life, opens the article with the question, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer died at the stake in 1556, a martyr for the English Reformation; but did he die a martyr for the Church of England or for Anglicanism? Had he lived?  MacColluch:

Archbishop Cranmer, living to his allotted three-score years and ten or beyond, could produce a third version of his two earlier Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552, in the light of friendly criticism from continental reformers whom he respected, like Peter Martyr, Johann Heinrich Bullinger and Calvin. He would be succeeded as archbishop by Nicholas Ridley or Robert Holgate, with energetic younger. reformers like Edmund Grindal ready to make their mark and pick up good ideas from the best reformed churches of Europe... 
Out in the parishes, metrical psalms in the style of Geneva would quickly have spread: these were the best secret weapon of the English Reformation, making its public worship and private devotional practice genuinely popular throughout increasing areas of the kingdom. This congregational music would also take over in the cathedrals, now devoid of choirs or polyphony, and with their organs (where they survived) used mainly for entertainment in the Dutch fashion...
England would have become the most powerful political player in the Reformed camp, with Cranmer a cordial if geographically distant partner with John Calvin. It is powerfully symbolic that it was Cranmer's son-in-law Thomas Norton who translated Calvin's Institutes into English, and Cranmer's veteran printer Reyner Wolfe who published it. With a Cranmer-Calvin axis, the profile of Reformed religion across the whole Continent would have been changed, and with the help and encouragement of Bishop Knox, the Reformation in Scotland might have followed a close path to the Reformed Church of England.
As MacCulloch notes, this was not to be.  The Roman Catholic Mary did take the throne. Cranmer, along with Ridley and Latimer, was martyred.  But MacColluch does go on to briefly survey what happened to the Church of England with the emergence of Anglicanism over the course of the ensuing four centuries.  He sums up what he understands to be Cranmer's lasting heritage:
Yet he spared the users of the Prayer Book the worst pomposities of humanism and the sprawling sentence constructions which are only too common in the English prose writers of the sixteenth century. He stands prominently amid a select band of Tudor writers from Tyndale to Shakespeare who set English on its future course...

He would not have known what Anglicanism meant, and would probably not have approved if the meaning had been explained to him, but without his contribution, the unending dialogue of Protestantism and Catholicism which forms Anglican identity would not have been possible. Beyond the concerns of Christianity, for all those who criticise his politics, or find his theology alien, Cranmer's language remains as the most enduring monument to Henry Vlll's and Edward VI's most faithful servant. Twentieth-century scholarship has reminded us just how fundamental is the structure of language to the way in which we construct our lives and our culture. Cranmer's language lies at the heart of our own English-speaking culture, which has now become so central to the destiny of the world.  
Read the whole thing.

Hat tip:  Anglicans in the Wilderness

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Church or a clean club?

[A companion to this post from March 2012: Word and Sacrament - Gospel Sanctification]

I have a friend, an elderly English gentleman, who left the Anglican Church back in the 1960s.  He said that he finally had come to the conclusion that the Church of England was basically a clean club.  I don't think that was necessarily an accurate assessment of every parish in the Church, but what did he mean by that?  Maybe that the Church seemed to be made up of pretty decent people who, more or less, were doing pretty well with this Christian life thing.  That all was pretty good in the lives of the flock.  No big struggles with sin.  No bouts with doubts.  And that just didn't describe his life which was fraught with struggles and weaknesses.  The Church, in his eyes, seemed to be the place for the mostly-together-good people, a clean club.

So, what is wrong with that?  Well, there's nothing wrong with people doing OK.  But there is something wrong with the idea that the Lord's house is a place for people who are not that bad, people who are pretty good.  My friend's description of his church is a picture of how Christians, and people in general, tend to look on the surface.  Yet it's this surface image of a clean club which we protectively hold that minimizes the reality of our sinful natures and the sins that beset us.  Being a card-carrying member of a clean club short-circuits the need to hear God's unvarnished Law which exposes and magnifies our sin, leaving one with little thirst for the cleansing comfort of God's amazing grace declared in His Gospel.

Think of the incident found in Luke 7:
36 Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to dine with him, and He entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, 38 and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”

Parable of Two Debtors

40 And Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have judged correctly.” 44 Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. 46 You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. 47 For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 Then He said to her, Your sins have been forgiven.” 49 Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” 50 And He said to the woman, Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Which debtor are we?  The one who owes a small amount or the one who owes an enormous debt?  Well, if you're like me, you do think of yourself as a sinner, but not that big of a sinner!  It's especially so because, hey, we've been Christians for quite a while.  We've made progress.  We've grown.  I've improved and am more acceptable than I use to be.  We think what we mainly need is, not the blood of the cross, but more grace and help to live as we ought.  The emphasis can become less and less on what our Savior Christ Jesus has done for us sinners and more on how we can grow to better live for God.

The Reformers were on to something; and that something was that we Christians are indeed very big debtors, in their words - miserable sinners.  They preached the Law in order to do much more than just inform Christians on how they were to live.  Rather, the Law was presented in order to reveal, within the hearers, sin as utterly sinful.  They also boldly proclaimed the reconciliation of sinners in Christ Jesus.  And sinners/saints having heard, looked with renewed faith to Christ alone as those reckoned righteous by God's grace.

In the incident above, Jesus was teaching what it means to be a Christian, not just what it means to initially get saved.  In other words, we are great sinners who have mercifully received a great salvation.  And, I don't think the apostle Paul was merely waxing eloquent when he declared near the end of his life to Timothy, Faithful is the saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief (1 Tim. 1:15). We loses sight of this since part of what it means to be a sinner is to be one who denies or obscures his sin, in a clean-club sort of way.  Therefore, it falls to the Church, through the ministry of Word and Sacrament, to perpetually call believers to not dissemble nor cloak our [sins] before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but acknowledge and confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by His infinite goodness and mercy in Christ Jesus (Morning Prayer 1662 BCP).

So let's be done with clean clubs and take direction from Martin Luther who, in a letter to Spalatin, wrote:
Therefore my faithful request and admonition is that you join our company and associate with us, who are real, great, and hard-boiled sinners.  You must by no means make Christ to seem paltry and trifling to us, as though He could be our Helper only when we want to be rid from imaginary, nominal, and childish sins.  No, no!  That would not be good for us.  He must rather be a Savior and Redeemer from real, great, grievous, and damnable transgressions and iniquities, yea, from the very greatest and most shocking sins; to be brief, from all sins added together in a grand total.
Jesus Christ gave Himself to die on the cross to save real sinners with real sins.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Reformed Liturgical Confession and Absolution

Concerning the forgiveness of sins, the last two posts (Here and Here) show that 'the power of forgiving or retaining sins is in the power of the gospel preached' and as Calvin noted, strictly speaking "Christ did not give this power to men but to his word, of which he made men the ministers."

So then, when the Lord's people publicly gather for worship, is it necessary to have a public confession of sin and absolution apart from the hearing of the Gospel in the sermon preached?  Isn't hearing the gospel and believing enough?  And, if there is to be a confession and absolution, how is it to be worded in order to reflect the biblical truth that forgiveness of sins comes through repentance and faith in Christ Jesus alone as proclaimed in that gospel and not by the word of man, even that of a godly minister?

Here's John Calvin addressing that first question concerning public confession of sin:
Seeing that in every sacred assembly we stand in the view of God and angels, in what way should our service begin but in acknowledging our own unworthiness? But this you will say is done in every prayer; for as often as we pray for pardon, we confess our sins. I admit it. But if you consider how great is our carelessness, or drowsiness, or sloth, you will grant me that it would be a salutary ordinance if the Christian people were exercised in humiliation by some formal method of confession. For though the ceremony which the Lord enjoined on the Israelites belonged to the tutelage of the Law, yet the thing itself belongs in some respect to us also. And, indeed, in all well-ordered churches, in observance of an useful custom, the minister, each Lord's day, frames a formula of confession in his own name and that of the people, in which he makes a common confession of iniquity, and supplicates pardon from the Lord. In short, by this key a door of prayer is opened privately for each, and publicly for all. (Institutes 3.4.2)
and...
Our first entrance into the Church and the kingdom of God is by forgiveness of sins, without which we have no covenant nor union with God. For thus he speaks by the Prophet, "in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven, and with the creeping things of the ground: and I will break the bow, and the sword, and the battle, out of the earth, and will make them to lie down safely. And I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loving-kindness, and in mercies (Hos. 2:18, 19). We see in what way the Lord reconciles us to Himself by His mercy. So in another passage, where he foretells that the people whom he had scattered in anger will again be gathered together, I will cleanse them from all their iniquity, whereby they have sinned against me (Jer. 33:8). Wherefore, our initiation into the fellowship of the Church is by the symbol of ablution, to teach us that we have no admission into the family of God, unless by His goodness our impurities are previously washed away.
Nor by remission of sins does the Lord only once for all elect and admit us into the Church, but by the same means He preserves and defends us in it. For what would it avail us to receive a pardon of which we were afterwards to have no use? That the mercy of the Lord would be vain and delusive if only granted once, all the godly can bear witness; for there is none who is not conscious, during his whole life, of many infirmities which stand in need of divine mercy. And truly it is not without cause that the Lord promises this gift specially to his own household, nor in vain that He orders the same message of reconciliation to be daily delivered to them. Wherefore, as during our whole lives we carry about with us the remains of sin, we could not continue in the Church one single moment were we not sustained by the uninterrupted grace of God in forgiving our sins." (Institutes 4.1.20)
I doubt there are many who would argue against Calvin's reasoning here.  Certainly the practice had a long tradition in church history and was found in all the confessional churches of the Reformation - Lutheran, Reformed, and Presbyterian.  The thing I really want to look at, though, is how the reformers worded the confession of sin and absolution in their liturgies.  Or put another way, how did the reformed ministers of the gospel exercise the keys of the kingdom when it came to public confession of sin and assurance of pardon?  

As you'll see below, the power of forgiveness was anchored in the Gospel and not the minister.  One of the striking things in the following examples is that the minister offers absolution not to just anyone sitting in the pew, but only to those who repent and believe in the gospel.  Absolution is not merely a word proclaimed by the minister.  Rather, it is a sure and certain pardon offered and proclaimed by the minister to all who repent and believe in Christ Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins.  By the hearing of the Good News offered in Christ Jesus via the words of God's ordained minister of the gospel, the faith of the sinner/saint is engaged.  And it is through faith in Christ that forgiveness and mercy are received by the grace of God.

Martin Bucer's 1539 Liturgy:
Public Confession of Sins
Make confession to God the Lord, and let everyone acknowledge with me his sin and iniquity:  Almighty, eternal God and Father, we confess and acknowledge unto You that we were conceived in unrighteousness and are full of sin and transgression in all our life. We do not fully believe Your Word nor follow Your holy commandments. Remember Your goodness, we beseech You, and for Your Name's sake be gracious unto us, and forgive us our iniquity which, alas, is great Amen.
Public Absolution of Sins
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Tim. 1:15)
Let everyone, with St. Paul, truly acknowledge this in his heart and believe in Christ. Thus, in His name, I proclaim unto you the forgiveness of all your sins, and declare you to be loosed of them on earth, that you be loosed of them also in heaven, in eternity. Amen.
From 1539 used by John Knox in Scotland and John Calvin in Geneva -
Confession of Sins:
Almighty God, eternal Father, we acknowledge and confess to you that we were born in unrighteousness. Our life is full of sin and transgression; we have not gladly believed your Word nor followed your holy commandments. For your goodness’ sake and for your name’s sake, be gracious unto us, we pray, and forgive us all our sin, which is very great. Amen.
Let each of us come before the face of the Lord, confessing our own faults.
Silent Prayer of Confession
Assurance and Absolution
This saying is true and we should believe it: that Christ Jesus came into the world to rescue sinners. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, that we might be dead to sin and alive to all that is good. To all those who repent, therefore, I proclaim to you the forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
The Strasbourg Liturgy of 1545
Public Confession of Sins
My brethren, let each of you present himself before the face of the Lord, and confess his faults and sins, following my words in his heart:
O Lord God, eternal and almighty Father, we confess and sincerely acknowledge before Your holy Majesty that we are poor sinners, conceived and born in iniquity and corruption, prone to do evil, incapable of any good, and that in our depravity we transgress Your holy commandments without end or ceasing; therefore we purchase for ourselves, through Your righteous judgment, our ruin and perdition. Nevertheless, O Lord, we are grieved that we have offended You, and we condemn ourselves and our sins with true repentance, beseeching Your grace to relieve our distress. O God and Father, most gracious and full of compassion, have mercy upon us in the name of Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. And as You do blot out our sins and stains, magnify and increase in us day by day the grace of Your Holy Spirit; that as we acknowledge our unrighteousness with all our heart, we may be moved by that sorrow which shall bring forth true repentance in us, mortifying all our sins, and producing in us the fruits of righteousness and innocence which are pleasing to You, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Public Absolution of Sins
Let each of you truly acknowledge that he is a sinner, humbling himself before God, and believe that the heavenly Father wills to be gracious unto him in Jesus Christ.
To all those that repent in this way, and look to Jesus Christ for their salvation, I declare that the absolution of sins is effected, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1662 (same as 1552) Book of Common Prayer -
Holy Communion
General Confession:
ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Absolution:
ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all them that with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him; Have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you from all your sins; confirm and strengthen you in all goodness; and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him.
COME unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. St. Matth. xi. 28.
So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. St. John iii. 16
Hear also what Saint Paul saith. This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. 1 Tim. i. 15.
Hear also what Saint John saith. If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins. 1 St. John ii. 1.
1662 (same as 1552) Book Of Common Prayer -
Morning Prayer
DEARLY beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us, in sundry places, to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloak them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy. And although we ought, at all times, humbly to acknowledge our sins before God; yet ought we chiefly so to do, when we assemble and meet together to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul. Wherefore I pray and beseech you, as many as are here present, to accompany me with a pure heart, and humble voice, unto the throne of the heavenly grace, saying after me;
A general Confession to be said of the whole Congregation after the Minister, all kneeling.
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.
The Absolution, or Remission of sins, to be pronounced by the Priest alone, standing; the people still kneeling.
 ALMIGHTY God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness, and live; and hath given power, and commandment, to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins : He pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel. Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him, which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure, and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The people shall answer here, and at the end of all other prayers,
Amen.