Reformation Subjects (21)

The articles in this section cover various subjects relating to the great Reformation of the church in the 16th century, including the major Reformers, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox.

The Return to Scripture - The Waldenses

This article first appeared in the October 1, 1984 issue of the Standard Bearer and was written by Rev. Thomas Miersma for the rubric "Guided Into All truth."

The Return to Scripture— The Waldenses

Throughout the Middle Ages God always preserved in the church a remnant who kept the light of the gospel burning in the midst of the prevailing darkness. The Waldenses were such a group. They were not, for the most part, learned men or theologians. Originally they formed a group within the existing church, nor did they have any real desire to leave the church or to reform it. While their contribution to the history of doctrine is small, they did serve to a certain extent in preparing the way for a return to Scripture in the days of the Reformation and are therefore worthy of our attention.

The Waldenses derive their name from Peter Waldo, a prosperous merchant of Lyons, France who lived in the latter part of the 1100s and probably died around 1218. While little of his life is known for certain, there are several things which can be said of him. He was evidently a faithful son of the Roman church. In his day, spiritual piety and devotion were measured in terms of voluntary acts of humiliation, pilgrimages, monastic seclusion, and other outward acts of devotion. He therefore who desired to live a more spiritual, religious, and holy life would separate himself as much as possible from the material things of the world in order to devote himself to spiritual contemplation and good works. This idea of a physical separation from the world was partially rooted in the Roman Catholic idea that evil was found in material things, as well as in a lack of a clear understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith without works. Monasticism and celibacy were viewed as the highest form of the religious life.

In this environment there were various avenues or ways of life open to laymen who were seeking a more meaningful spiritual life and a sanctified walk. It was such a desire which moved Peter Waldo, under the instruction and counsel of a priest, to take literally the command to the rich young ruler to sell all that he had, to give to the poor, and to follow Christ. Around the year 1170 he made provision for his wife and daughters, the latter of whom entered a convent, and distributed his remaining possessions among the poor. His desire was to live simply according to the literal commands of the gospel.

This desire led him to seek a translation of the gospels and other parts of the Scriptures from the Latin into the common language of the people. Then he, and those who found themselves in agreement with him went about from village to village, preaching. In this he and his followers sought to follow directly the command of Christ to the apostles to go forth two by two, taking nothing with them but the bare necessities of life. The name they took for themselves was "the poor of Christ." They sought, by their preaching, to spread the simple precepts of the gospel among the people. As this movement spread it was resisted by the church which forbade them to preach. When the Waldenses sought approval from the church authorities for their way of life and for their translation of the gospels, the church refused its consent.

This rejection by the church authorities is understandable. In the first place, the Waldenses were not ordained and sent to preach; they were laymen, not officebearers. Although the church was technically correct, she passed over the real issue: that the clergy themselves had neglected to preach faithfully the Word, and that those who were God's people hungered for His Word. In the second place, this preaching of the gospel, however simple in form, stood as a threat to the whole structure the Roman church had built, as it was founded upon human traditions and the commandments of men. A return to the Word of God as the authority for faith and life must necessarily undermine the whole Roman Catholic system of doctrine, of the sacraments, of hierarchy, of popes, and with them the temporal power of the church. And so they were forbidden to preach, and when they refused to stop, saying that they must obey God rather than men, they were excommunicated, which at that time also exposed them to punishment by the civil authorities. The movement, however, continued to spread, from France into Italy, Austria, Germany, and even into Poland.

In addition to their preaching the Waldenses also distributed and sold copies of the gospels and other portions of Scripture, and that in the common language of the people. This led to a greater knowledge of the Word of God among the common people and would also serve to prepare the way for reformation.

Despite being driven from the church, the Waldenses continued their labors. Their zealous teaching and preaching of the Scriptures in the common language could not be without effect. The group more and more began to question certain doctrines of the church. In the first place, they emphasized the importance of preaching. This was at odds with the Roman church's emphasis on the sacraments, particularly the mass, and the priority of these over the preaching. They also began to challenge such doctrines as purgatory and prayers for the dead. Positively, they began to assert, in an early form, the doctrine of the priesthood of believers. The right of unfaithful clergy to function in their office was also challenged by them. This in itself was indeed a serious threat to Rome, as many of her priests lived in open fornication and concubinage.

While all this does not mean that the Waldenses were true Protestants, yet, in their development they were heading in the direction of the Reformation. Their movement was rooted chiefly in the desire for personal piety and spirituality, while its doctrinal development stood in the background. Their simple approach to Scripture often led to a definite lack of clarity in their views as well as to several serious errors. Some of their groups for example, taught that women also could preach. This was a confusion of the office of believer with the official work of the ministry, a confusion which arose out of the Waldenses' rejection of the authority of the offices in the church. They also showed a tendency to drift into anabaptist and baptistic ideas and to reject infant baptism and the lawful oath.

But it was their emphasis on preaching and on the power and authority of the Word of God, and their dissemination of the Scriptures to the people which reserves for them a special place in the history of the church. These things the hierarchy of Rome could not tolerate. In attempting to deal with the Waldenses the church created an ecclesiastically approved counterpart to them from disaffected members of their group. This group of "Catholic poor" emphasized the same ideas of poverty and personal piety, but under the strict control of the church. This idea later found a home in the religious order of the Franciscans within the Roman church.

A second response of the church to this growing movement was to forbid laymen to possess copies of the Scriptures. Heretofore the church had taken no official stand on the matter, but at the Synod of Toulouse in 1229, the Bible was officially removed from the hands of the laity. All translations were also denounced. The laity might only possess the portions of the Scriptures which were in use in the church's liturgy such as the psalter. The decree of this Synod was not a universal one, but it did set the pattern for the later Middle Ages, and it reflects the church's hardening in her position of removing the Scriptures from the people.

The church's primary response however was one of suppression and persecution. This persecution at first varied in degree and from place to place, but it increased in severity as the influence of the Waldenses spread. As early as 1212 some of their number may have suffered martyrdom in Strassbourg. In some areas of Europe they were able to gain a considerable following, especially in Bohemia where the pre-reformer John Huss was to arise. To counteract these developments the church established the Inquisition. The Inquisition was organized by the popes and its purpose was the rooting out and destruction of heresy by means of interrogation and threats under torture. While the Inquisition was directed at groups other than the Waldenses as well, they too fell victim to its methods of torture, imprisonment, and execution by burning at the stake. In the 1300s the Inquisition was sent to Bohemia, Poland, and Austria to root out the Waldenses. In 1487, Pope Innocent VIII called upon the king of France to set out on a crusade against the Waldenses in order to root them out of the alpine valleys to which many of them had retreated for safety.

In spite of these things the Waldenses survived, and when the Reformation took place in the 1500s they appropriated it and its doctrine. It was then that they endured some of the fiercest persecution yet to come upon them.

In the Waldenses therefore also is revealed the fact that the way of the church's return to Scripture would not be a way of peaceful Reformation, but a way of suffering and death for the Word of God. For the church of Rome was more and more manifesting herself as the false church. Only in the way of suffering would the yoke of tradition and false doctrine be broken and the church reformed upon the foundation of the pure Word of God.


Our Reformation Heritage

 This article first appeared in the October 1, 1984 issue of the Standard Bearer and was written by Rev. Ronald Cammenga for the rubric "Strength of Youth" (especially for young people).

Our Reformation Heritage

The last day of this month will mark the 467th anniversary of the Reformation. The Reformation, dated from Luther's nailing of the 95 Theses on the chapel door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, was a great work of God for the renewal of His church. Prior to the Reformation, the church had departed from the truth of God. There were departures in doctrine. Many serious errors were held and taught by the church. There were also departures in the Christian life. Ungodly and carnal living characterized both the clergy and the laity at the time of the Reformation. The Reformation was the means of God to purify and reform His church. It was such a reformation as called the faithful people of God out of an apostate church in order to institute the church anew.

We today are heirs of the Reformation and of the work of the Reformers. We are children of the Reformation; the Reformers are our spiritual fathers. The Reformation is our heritage. This applies to you young people. You young people are children of the Reformation. The heritage of the Reformation is YOUR heritage. It's a blessed heritage, a glorious heritage, a priceless heritage. For this heritage you ought to be eternally thankful to God.

What is the Reformation heritage that is yours and for which you ought to be thankful?

That heritage is, first of all, the Bible. The Reformation was the great means of God for the recovery of the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church had buried the Bible. The people were forbidden to have and to read the Bible. Besides, Rome had obscured the Bible with all her traditions and papal decrees that were exalted above the authority of the Bible. Instead of faith in the Word of God, the people were exhorted to put their faith in the church. The Reformers reacted sharply to Rome's denial of the central and exclusive place of the Word of God in the faith and life of the people. Through their efforts the Bible was restored to the church.

Secondly, belonging to our Reformation heritage is the truth of justification by faith alone. The Reformation not only recovered the Bible, but it also recovered the central message of the Bible: justification by faith alone. Rome had denied this truth. Rome had taught salvation by works, that men must earn their salvation. Through his own experience and from the study of the Scriptures, Luther came to see the error of this teaching. In its place he preached the truth that salvation is of grace. Salvation is not the work of man, but the work of God in Christ received by men through faith alone. God, not man, must receive the glory for salvation.

Thirdly, it was the work of the Reformation to restore preaching to its rightful place. The great truth of justification by faith alone was a truth that had to be preached. By the time of the Reformation, preaching had all but disappeared in the church. Instead of preaching, the priests administered the sacraments. Not the preaching, but the sacraments, and especially the Mass, was viewed as the chief means of grace and salvation. So little preaching was done that even the sacraments were administered in a language that the people could not understand. The Reformation restored preaching to its rightful place in the church. The Reformers themselves were mighty preachers. In harmony with the centrality of the preaching, the worship services of the Reformed churches emphasized the preaching, expository, doctrinal preaching.

In the fourth place, the Reformation restructured the church itself. The offices and discipline of the church had been thoroughly corrupted in the Roman Catholic Church. An unbiblical form of hierarchy had been introduced, with an infallible pope at the head. The office of all believers had been completely lost sight of. There existed almost no conception of the proper work and calling of the officebearers. A cleavage was made between the clergy and the laity. The Reformation did away with this hierarchical form of church government. Especially through the labors of Calvin, the Re formed churches were restored to a presbyterian form of church government.

In the fifth place, occupying an important place in our Reformation heritage are our creeds. Particularly two of our creeds, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession of Faith, are direct products of the Reformation. For the sake of the unity of the church, out of concern for the instruction of the youth, and to serve as a witness to the world, the Reformation wrote creeds. In these creeds we have not only the essentials of the Reformed faith, what it means to be Reformed, but we have also set forth all of the fundamental truths of the Word of God. How useful to the Reformed churches have not the creeds been!

In the sixth place, the Reformation restored godly living, and put the Christian life on its proper basis. The Reformers renounced as the basis for the Christian life the attempt to earn salvation. Instead they proclaimed as the basis for the Christian's life in the world gratitude, gratitude for gracious salvation. The Reformers' emphasis on justification by faith alone did not lead them to disparage good works. Instead it was this very doctrine which the Reformation recovered that led the Reformers to call God's people to a serious and devout Christian life.

In the seventh place, the Reformation was instrumental in promoting and establishing Christian schools. Christian education is part of our Reformation heritage. The Christian school movement that flourishes among our own people rests on principles set forth by the Reformers. Luther once said:

When schools prosper the church remains righteous and her doctrine pure . . . . Young pupils and students are the seed and source of the church . . . . For the sake of the church we must have and maintain Christian schools. They may not appear attractive, but they are useful and necessary.

Finally, it must not be overlooked that belonging to our Reformation heritage is also the example of unswerving devotion to the truth which the Reformers give us. They were men who stood for the truth, and who stood for the truth at a cost. They were willing to pay the price, to make the sacrifice, for the sake of the truth. They endured the persecution, gave up their earthly possessions, parted with those who had been their friends and companions, for the sake of the truth. Many of them laid down their own lives for the truth's sake. What an example of steadfastness and of faithful discipleship!

This is our heritage. This is YOUR heritage, young people. What a heritage it is! It is the truth, it is the gospel, it is God Himself.

For this truth you ought to be thankful. You ought to be thankful that you have this heritage. God in His grace has caused you to be born to believing parents. He has seen to it that you have been brought up in a Reformed church, in a church that stands on the Reformation. He has given you faithful instruction in the Reformed faith many years already, by your parents, in the church, at the Christian school. That the Reformation is your heritage ought to be reason for deepest gratitude on your part.

If you are grateful for this heritage, and to the degree to which you are grateful, you will use this heritage. This heritage is yours not simply to admire, but to use. Do you read and study God's Word? Do you embrace with a believing heart the truth of that Word? Do you faithfully hear and receive the preaching of this truth? Do you participate in the life of the church and, through confession of faith, in the government of the church? Do you show a concern for a godly walk and separate yourself from those who do not? Do you avail yourself of the Christian education that is yours, and already now do what you can to support the cause of Christian education? Do you live a life of devotion to the truth of God and to the church that maintains that truth? This is how we show our gratitude for our Reformation heritage and identify ourselves as children of the Reformation.

Grateful for this heritage, you will also defend and maintain it. This is not only your heritage to enjoy and from which to profit, but this is the heritage that you are called to preserve for your children after you. On every hand today the heritage of the Reformation is being corrupted and sold. Every important aspect of that heritage is under attack and is being denied today. More and more there is a movement back to the very conditions from which the Reformation delivered God's people. The Reformation heritage is despised and berated. As the children of the Reformation, you are called to preserve your heritage. Maintain and defend it against every corruption, every denial, every attempt at compromise. Be concerned to pass that heritage on intact to the coming generation.

A concern for the preservation of our Reformation heritage will also motivate you to continual reformation. We must never take the attitude that we have arrived. Nor must we suppose that the only threats to this heritage of ours are the errors of all of the other churches out there. The fact of the matter is that the greatest threats to our Reformation heritage are from our own selves, our own weaknesses, our own sins, both as individuals and as churches. Love for this great heritage which is ours must express itself in our being Reformed and always reforming.

We are grateful to God for what He has done and what He has given us in the Reformation. We are thankful for what He accomplished through men like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox. May God preserve this Reformation heritage among us. And may we be used by Him for the propagation of the Reformed faith in all the world.


Luther on Preaching

This article first appeared in the October 15, 2001 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.78, No.2) in a special Reformation issue on Martin Luther and was written by Rev. Steven Key, then pastor of Hull PRC in NW Iowa.

Luther on Preaching

The history of Dr. Martin Luther and his influence on preaching is well worth considering. The Reformation took root, after all, by the restoration of faithful preaching, with Martin Luther and the other Reformers leading the way.

Although it would be an overstatement to say that preaching had been entirely lost prior to the Reformation, it is true that there were very few faithful preachers left in the church, and preaching itself had certainly fallen on hard times. The element of proclamation, the "thus saith the Lord" which is the heart of all true preaching, was all but lost. For that reason one of the most important contributions of Dr. Martin Luther to the church was his emphasis on preaching. 

Luther himself gives us a view of what preaching commonly involved in his day, openly ridiculing and scorning that which passed for "preaching" by the unfaithful pastors in the church of his day. The sermons were superficial, often including fables or stories, and including a mixture of pagan philosophy. Moreover, these "sermons" were often told in a vulgar or comical way, in order to amuse the people. Christ was forgotten. The Scriptures were neglected. 

"Oh, we have had blind preachers for a long time; they have been totally blind themselves and leaders of the blind, as the gospel says; they have left the gospel and followed their own ideas and preferred the work of men to the work of God."¹ 

Never one to mince words, Luther spoke sharply when speaking of unfaithful preachers. "These are the lazy and worthless preachers who do not tell the princes and lords their sins. In some cases they do not notice the sins. They lie down and snore in their office and do nothing that pertains to it except that, like swine, they take up the room where good preachers should stand." 

Over against that corruption of preaching, Luther fervently called for biblical, expository preaching. "It was Luther who rediscovered both the form and the substance of this preaching.... For him preaching was the veritable Word of God Himself, and, as such, occupied the central position in the Church."² Indeed, the emphasis on preaching the gospel developed into one of the chief marks of the churches of the Reformation and, as Luther never tired of pointing out, gave purpose as well as authority to their existence.

Preaching with Substance

Martin Luther understood that faithful preaching must have substance. That substance is the truth of the gospel, the faithful exposition of Holy Scripture. 

A. Skevington Wood, in his book Captive to the Word, summarizes Luther's preaching as follows:

The salient feature of Luther's preaching was its biblical content and reference. It was subject to Scripture throughout. Luther submitted to a rigorous discipline. He was bound by the Word. His preaching was never merely topical. He could never turn a text into a pretext. "I take pains to treat a verse, to stick to it," he explained, "and so to instruct the people that they can say, 'That is what the sermon was about.'" His preaching was never a movement from men to the text: it was always a movement from the text to men. The matter never determined the text: the text always determined the matter. He was not in the habit of treating subjects or issues, but doctrines. But when he did so, he invariably followed a prescribed Scripture passage step by step. He considered one of the major qualifications of the preacher to be familiarity with the Word."³

Luther taught clearly the centrality of the Word. Faith is nothing else but adherence to the Word. It is the Word which breaks down the sinner by the law and which raises up the believer in the gospel. 

His high esteem for the Word of God explains why Luther also attempted to preach systematically through the Scriptures, preaching series of sermons from both Old and New Testaments.

Because of that biblical emphasis on the primacy of the Word and the centrality of preaching, Luther had no place for the false mysticism that sets aside the Word of God for inner feelings. "Away with our schismatics, who spurn the Word while they sit in corners waiting for the Spirit's revelation, but apart from the voice of the Word!"

It must be noted in this connection that Luther spoke of preaching in terms of "the voice." He said, "Take note: The beginning of all spiritual knowledge is this voice of one crying, as also Paul says, Romans 10:14: 'How are they to believe...without a preacher?' "

Preaching with Authority

Luther taught clearly that preaching that is faithful and true comes with the authority of "the voice." 

This thought reflected Luther's high view of the office. The minister is sent by God, and enters the office of God. "Thus St. Paul is confident (II Cor. 13:3) that he is speaking not his own word, but the Word of the Lord Christ. Thus we, too, can say that He has put it into our mouth." 

That truth was important to Luther, too, in the face of all the opposition that darkened his pathway. It was a truth he consistently proclaimed. 

In his treatment of Psalm 2, in speaking of the office of Christ as Teacher who declares God's decree, Luther explained that the Holy Spirit so teaches us "that God does everything through the Son. For when the Son preaches the Law, the Father Himself, who is in the Son or one with the Son, preaches. And when we preach about this same decree, Christ Himself preaches, as He says: 'He who hears you hears Me' (Luke 10:16)." 

Elsewhere he writes of preachers as "the mouth of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the instrument whereby He openly preacheth the Word"; and since Christ the Word is the utterance of God's own heart, "when thou hearest the Word," Luther says, "then thou hearest God." Commenting on John 10:14, Luther writes, "It is not we who are speaking; it is Christ and God Himself. Hence when you hear this sermon, you are hearing God Himself. On the other hand, if you despise this sermon, you are despising not us but God Himself."

Preaching and the Work of the Spirit

It is because Christ speaks by the preaching of the gospel that preaching is powerful and effective in accomplishing the purpose whereunto God sends it. 

So Dr. Luther calls attention in his writings to the place of the Holy Spirit in preaching. Christ works this powerful Word by His Holy Spirit. It is through the words of preachers that the Holy Spirit works, convicting the world of sin, and establishing the faith of God's elect through the effectual and irresistible call. 

It is the Holy Spirit who gives the preaching its power. Christ draws men to Himself through the Word alone, rescuing His people from the power of sin and death and giving them freedom, righteousness, and life.

This great and marvelous thing is accomplished entirely through the office of preaching the Gospel. Viewed superficially, this looks like a trifling thing, without any power, like any ordinary man's speech and word. But when such preaching is heard, His invisible, divine power is at work in the hearts of men through the Holy Spirit. Therefore St. Paul calls the Gospel "a power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith."

Rom. 1:16

Clearly, preachers are but instruments in God's hands. "What shall we do? We can deplore the blindness and obstinacy of people, but we cannot bring about a change for the better." Only when Christ Himself speaks by His Holy Spirit is the preaching powerful to change and bring salvation. 

"Neither I nor anyone else can ever preach the Word adequately; the Holy Spirit alone must utter and preach it." For it is the Spirit who works by the Word. When through the outward preaching of the Word and the inward witness of the Holy Spirit, faith is created, that which is promised in the gospel becomes effective for the believer. 

"Accordingly, it is a Word of power and grace when it infuses the Spirit at the same time that it strikes the ears. But if it does not infuse the Spirit, then he who hears does not differ at all from one who is deaf."

Hearing the Preaching

Not overlooked by Luther was the calling of all who hear the preaching to examine that preaching, to see whether it be faithful to the Holy Scriptures. "Hence this is the touchstone by which all doctrine is to be judged. One must take care and see whether it is the same doctrine that was published in Zion through the apostles." It is such preaching that is used by God as the powerful, saving voice of Christ. "For this alone, as has been said, is the true doctrine, bestowing upon men a right and certain understanding, comfort of heart, and salvation." 

Along these lines, Luther faces squarely the question of whether or not Christ speaks through a preacher just because the man occupies the office.

To begin with, we must know that those who are sent speak the Word of God provided that they adhere to their office and administer it as they received it. In that event, they surely speak the Word of God.... A king's ambassador or emissary discharges his duty when he abides by his master's order and instruction. If he fails in this, the king has him beheaded.

When a minister, therefore, faithfully preaches the Word of God, Christ is pleased to speak through him by His Holy Spirit; if not, then the words apply to that preacher: "Beware of false prophets!" We must neither speak nor hear anything but the Word of God. 

For that reason the gospel must be heard and preached. Preaching not only has substance, but very specific content. 

Luther insisted on the following: "The preacher's first message is to teach penitence, removing offenses, proclaim the Law, humiliate and terrify the sinners." Our sin must be exposed by the preaching of the gospel. 

In preaching through Romans, he said, "The sum and substance of this letter is: to pull down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh..., no matter how heartily and sincerely they may be practiced, and to implant, establish, and make large the reality of sin.... For God does not want to save us by our own but by an extraneous righteousness which does not originate in ourselves but comes to us from heaven." 

The necessity of preaching man's depravity is found in the fact that grace is given to the humble. Christ came not to save the righteous, but to bring sinners to repentance. So Luther said, "They cannot be humble who do not recognize that they are damnable whose sin smells to high heaven.... Yearning for grace wells up when recognition of sin has arisen. A sick person seeks the physician when he recognizes the seriousness of his illness." 

And because God's people have a continual struggle with their sinful flesh, preaching must be antithetical. It must be preaching that not only sounds the silver trumpet of salvation, but that sounds the horn which exposes and reproves the old man and calls to repentance. 

As Luther recognized and experienced, it takes boldness in preaching to serve as Christ's ambassador. But the preacher cannot stop with merely preaching sin, for that would amount to wounding and not binding up, smiting and not healing. "Therefore we must also preach the word of grace and the promise of forgiveness by which faith is taught and aroused." 

The focus of all preaching must be Christ. The only content of its message is about Him. "This is the gist of your preaching: Behold your God! 'Promote God alone, His mercy and grace. Preach Me alone.' " 

Soli Deo Gloria was the motto of Luther, therefore, no less than of Calvin. The sovereignty of God occupied a prominent place in all Luther's preaching, for his was indeed gospel preaching. From him also came forth the cry of the Reformation, "Let God be God!" In his words, "the gospel proclaims nothing else but salvation by grace, given to man without any works and merits whatsoever. Natural man cannot abide, hear, or see the gospel. Nor does it enter into the hypocrites, for it casts out their works, declaring that they are nothing and not pleasing to God." 

God alone works His wonderwork of grace in saving us! For in Christ alone rests all our salvation. The gospel is preached with the purpose of consoling with grace those who are contrite of heart. 

Martin Luther also viewed the importance of preaching in the light of its positive fruits. In opposition to the errors of legalism, He recognized that the Christian life must be a life of thankfulness to God, and therefore a conscious laying hold of the gospel of a gracious salvation. Thankful lives follow from faithful preaching. 

Luther's approach to preaching, therefore, is the approach that would later be outlined in the Heidelberg Catechism. This is the way of true comfort, wrought by the Spirit through the preaching. 

"Thus it is not the stones, the construction, and the gorgeous silver and gold that make a church beautiful and holy; it is the Word of God and sound preaching." And this is preaching in which God is glorified.

Such preaching is God's greatest blessing for His church. "Therefore let those who have the pure Word learn to receive it and to give thanks to the Lord for it, and let them seek the Lord while He may be found." May we, the children of the Reformation, humble ourselves and thank God for faithful preaching! 

For God will surely require that we give an account of our preaching and hearing.

1. Except as noted, this and all other quotes come from many different volumes of Luther's Works. References can be provided upon request to this author, but are not included for lack of space.

2. T.H.L. Parker, The Oracles of God, An Introduction to the Preaching of John Calvin, p. 20.

3. A. Skevington Wood, Captive to the Word, p. 89.


The Believer and His Bible

This article first appeared in the special Reformation issue of the October 15, 1993 Standard Bearer (on the doctrine of Scripture), and was written by Prof. Robert Decker, then professor of practical theology in the PRC Seminary (now emeritus).

The Believer and His Bible

The sixteenth century Reformation proclaimed three fundamental principles: justification by faith alone, Scripture alone, and the priesthood of all believers. In opposition to Rome's hierarchy the Reformers insisted that the only authority for the faith and life of God's people is Holy Scripture. They further insisted that every believer as prophet, priest, and king in Christ could read and understand the Word of God. Rome had effectively taken the Bible out of the hands of the people. Rome's hierarchy, the clergy and especially the pope, stood between the believer and his Bible. The church (clerical hierarchy) interpreted the Bible for the people (laity). 

Today a new hierarchy has arisen in the churches, viz. that of the professional theologians, the archaeologists and geologists, the scientists, the learned scholars. These are telling us that we cannot understand the Bible anymore. They are telling us that the Bible does not say what we have always thought it says. Furthermore, because of this they are telling us we need them to tell us what the Bible really means and how it applies to our lives today. They represent a new hierarchy between the believer and his Bible. 

According to this new hierarchy the Bible contains man's witness to God or to Jesus. What we have in the Bible is the record of the various writers' religious experiences or encounters with God. The Pentateuch is the record of Moses' encounter with God. Isaiah witnesses to God as he and his contemporaries experienced God. The Evangelists wrote about Jesus as they saw and heard Him. The same is true of the apostles and other writers of the New Testament. The early church gradually adopted these writings as sacred Scripture. 

The Bible, therefore, is time bound according to these experts. It was written in its own time in history, and its writers were limited by the times in which they lived. They were influenced by the primitive vision of the ancient world of Bible times. They conceived, for example, of a three-storied universe: heaven above, the earth beneath, and hell under the earth. They thought that the sun revolved around a flat earth. The biblical writers had many other mistaken notions as well, such as, for example, the following: the world was created by God in six twenty-four hour days, there was a universal flood, an ax head floated, Jonah was in the belly of a great fish, a dry path was made through the Red Sea, water out of a rock went bouncing along after Israel in the desert. These men wrote in their times and for their times, but now in our scientific and sophisticated age we know better. Either these things just did not occur or there is a natural explanation for them. 

These men also say that the Bible is culturally conditioned. Each writer wrote in the context of his own culture, and this affected his witness to God. When, for example, Paul wrote about marriage and divorce, or about the headship of the husband, or about women keeping silence in the churches and not usurping the authority of the man in the church, Paul was under the influence of his rabbinical training and the cultural mores of his day. Likewise were the other biblical writers limited by the cultural influences of their day.

All this radically alters how we are to understand the Bible. The Bible, according to these scholars, contains myths and teaching models. Genesis 1, 2 tells us that God created the universe, but not how and when. Genesis 3 teaches that the human race fell into sin and death, but no more than that. The Bible contains misconceptions arising out of primitive conceptions of reality. And there are just plain errors in the Bible. One of these is the Bible's account of creation. Science has proved a very old universe. The earth simply cannot be about six thousand years old as Scripture teaches. Adam and Eve were not real people living in a real garden called Eden or Paradise. Further, what Paul said about women applied in his day when women ran around with veils and were living in a male dominated society. But all this does not apply in our enlightened times. 

Many factors are involved in interpreting the Bible. Two questions need to be answered in Bible interpretation: What did the writer mean by this passage relative to his own time and culture, and what does it mean for us today? The answers to those two questions often are quite different. In Paul's day women had to keep silence in the churches, while today they may occupy church office. In Paul's day homosexuality and lesbianism were considered a manifestation of the reprobate mind; while today such people may occupy not only the pew but also the pulpit. 

Thus it is, we are being told, that we need to know ancient history, culture, language, mythology, philosophy, archeology, and the sciences, if we are to be equipped to understand the Bible. Of course, we need to know these disciplines if we are to expound the Bible correctly. But the theologians mean something quite different. They mean that if there is a conflict between one's scientific discoveries and the Bible, one must reconsider the traditional interpretation of the Bible and be willing to change. Science determines the meaning of the Bible. 

The conclusion is that God's people really cannot understand the Bible. We are not equipped to read it correctly. We need the theologians, linguists, and scientists to tell us what the Bible is really saying. 

And so it is that a new hierarchy has arisen in the churches, that of the theologians and scholars. These must tell us the meaning of Scripture. Without them we cannot understand what we read in the Bible. Just as effectively as Rome, these have placed themselves between God's people and the Bible. They have effectively taken the Bible out of the hands of the people of God. 

This is very serious indeed! The church has always confessed, and the Reformation reasserted, these precious truths that the Bible is inspired and therefore infallible. The Reformation also asserted that the Bible is perspicuous, or clear. Because the Bible is inspired and infallible it is the only rule for our faith and life. And in the Bible God speaks to us in language which we can understand. The question or issue we face is not whether we can or do understand .what the Bible is saying, but whether we believe what the Bible is saying? This is, no doubt, at least one of the reasons Jesus told us we had to become as little children in order to enter the kingdom of God. This writer teaches a catechism class of six-year-old children. These little ones have no difficulty understanding that Jesus was born of the virgin, that He healed the sick and raised the dead, that He suffered and died on the cross and was raised from the dead and now sits at God's right hand in glory and is coming again at the end of the ages. The Scriptures are able to make us wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (II Timothy 3:15).

Our calling is plain! We must let no one, no synods, no theologians, no experts take our Bibles away from us. Still more, we must insist that the Word of God be faithfully preached. And faithfully means properly. The church does not need Sunday School stories from the pulpit, or dissertations on political or social issues. The believer needs to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd (John 10) by means of preaching. Without faithful preaching we cannot call upon the name of the Lord in faith and be saved (cf. Romans 10:13-15) Faithful preaching is preaching that expounds the Word of God. The sermons we hear must contain nothing more or less than what Scripture itself says. And we need to search the Scriptures daily, prayerfully to meditate on the Word of God. 

By these means we may be assured that the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ witnesses with our spirits that we are the children of God (Rom. 8:16). 

Following the example of Martin Luther let each of us, with Bible in hand, say to the new hierarchy, "Here I stand, I can do naught else, God help me."


The Profit of Our Inspired Bible

This article first appeared in the special Reformation issue of the October 15, 1993 Standard Bearer, and was written by Rev. Jason Kortering, PRC minister laboring in Singapore at the time.

The Profit of Our Inspired Bible

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.  II Timothy 3:16, 17

A perfect man of God, a perfect woman of God! 

Furnished unto all good works. 


Does not your soul cry out for that spiritual condition? Victory over all the appetites of the flesh. Satan and his hordes, vanquished forever. We become so complete in our salvation that we fulfill exactly the purpose that God had in sending Jesus to die for us.

Yes, to be the perfect man of God, thoroughly furnished unto all good works, we must ultimately wait until we open our eyes in glory. Then every tear shall we wiped from our eyes, the former things shall pass away, and we shall be complete. That will not only be true for us individually, it will be true for all of us who make up the perfect church. In some ways this is best of all. Sometimes our greatest hurt is the way we treat each other in the church. Ah, what a day, when doctrinal controversy will be a thing of the past, for we will all profess unity in the truth. Our tongues will be sanctified to speak the truth in love. We will get along with each other perfectly. We will fully appreciate God's work in each saint. 

Thoroughly furnished unto all good works! 

The more we practice this now, the closer we are to heaven already in this life. As Christians we become perfect now, by being equipped, that is, thoroughly furnished, unto all good works. The very purpose of God in saving us is that we may perform good works (Eph. 2:8-10). Think that through a for moment: we become complete Christians when we are rich in all good works. Thus it is in our personal life, in our home and family life, in our dealing with our neighbors, yes, also in the church of Jesus Christ. 

The purpose of the Holy Bible is to accomplish this. It is our God-given equipment that enables us to walk in all good works. 

Does your Bible show it? How many Bibles have you worn out in your lifetime? Do you have your own personal Bible which you take with you to the society meeting or Bible study? Is it-with you when you worship on the Lord's Day? Do you have the same Bible at family worship and for your own quiet time with your Lord? Is your present Bible well marked, noted with points that have been made in sermons or Bible studies, thoughts which came to you when you reflected in the inner closet? 

One of the first things our missionaries learn to appreciate is that outside the sphere of our churches the above things are true, while within our churches and families it is rare. This ought not to be. One of the best things we could do as churches is throw out the "pew Bible." Our personal Bibles should be working Bibles; and they won't become that, as long as we have school Bibles, church Bibles, society Bibles. How many Bibles presented to our children at school graduation get worn out? We can learn something from others. This is one thing we ought to learn. 

The proper use of our Bibles affords spiritual change in our lives. We are told that the Bible "is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness." Doctrine is, literally, teaching. The Word of God forms the basis of our faith, what we believe and hold for truth. Righteousness is our legal standing before God, we are viewed as conforming to God's divine law. Such proper standing before God's law involves two things: reproof - it points out sin and error by calling us to repentance; and correction - it directs us in the right way, the way of obedience, of sanctification. The sum total of such activity is called in verse 15, "wise unto salvation."

The process whereby we take hold of the Word of God is described in verse 14: "But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned." The assumption is that someone taught him. Further, in verse 16 we read of "instruction in righteousness" - literally, training, which implies repeated lessons. This comes in many ways. Paul mentions particularly to Timothy that it started for him when he was young and his mother and grandmother taught him. The influence of a Christian home in our youth is inestimable. The reading of God's Word and Bible stories to our children is so important. We teach our growing children to have a "quiet time" with God each day by being an example to them ourselves. More and more we learn to appreciate the preaching of the gospel and the loving care of the Christian church through her officebearers and fellow members. In the center of all this activity is the Word of God. 

And no wonder! 

The Bible is God's message to us. It is His clear instruction on all aspects of Christian belief. We hold for truth what God Himself declares to be truth. Our Christian life is not a novelty invented by austere Puritans or liberating Germans. The Bible sets forth God's unchangeable law and purpose for our serving Him. Good works are clearly defined in His Word. He determines good and evil. 

The Bible is nothing to play with. It carries the stamp of divine authority. One cannot read the imprecatory Psalms or the warning of the prophets without bowing in humble awe before the "Thus saith Jehovah." He whose eyes are as flaming fire, who melted the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into an inferno of fire and brimstone, calls everyone of us to account. The lie originates in His adversary. Sin carries an awful smell in His holy nostrils. Can we read His Word and actually think that we will decide what parts of it are human and what are divine? O presumptuous fools who tread on His holy ground with such fatal pride. Rather, we bow in humble gratitude, for His revelation is reliable. Rather would I place the care of my immortal soul in the hands of Him who inhabiteth eternity, than in the wisdom of the fool, be he the scholarly professor, the intelligent guru, or the all-wise philosopher. 

Yes, our children can read and understand. Their implicit faith is held before us by our Master, "Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3). 

The traditions of men cannot compare. Men err; but God's Word is free from human error and conveys truth from beginning to end. 

He who has the Word of God is equipped, having been furnished for every good work.

The lessons of history teach this to us. No wonder Satan's attack is upon the Word of God. Yes, he attacks it in many ways, none more effective than simply getting us to abandon the proper use of our Bibles. Why did the prophet Hosea cry out, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6)? Why? Because the people rejected knowledge. There were times when the Word of God was scarce, but that was God's judgment upon the people for rejecting His prophets. The height of apostasy is for the church either to forbid God's people God's Word or to corrupt what Word they have. Hence the Reformation was a time of re-forming, for the old was beyond saving. And for the faithful who pay attention to God's Word, Satan has his subtle and not so subtle ways to attack the Word of God itself or those who are determined to declare it. If the blood of translators and publishers cannot stop the distribution, the devil quietly gets the job done by higher criticism and corrupt translations. He never stops, for our enemy knows the battle of faith is over the Word of God. 

Why is that Word so special? Why is it so effective in the lives of God's people, and why does it consequently draw like a lightening rod the sparks of hostility from the enemy of the church? 

The answer is in this passage as well, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God." The Scriptures which are referred to here are first of all the Old Testament writings which Timothy had learned from a child. In addition to them, the "all" refers to those New Testament writings which were already available to the church. Some of these writings were copies of the original manuscripts; some were translations from copies, for in all likelihood Timothy's mother used the Greek version of the Old Testament as well. Paul isn't interested in getting into the issue whether the autographa were inspired, whether copies are inspired, whether translations are inspired. He simply says, and that through the Holy Spirit, that all the Scriptures, no matter which ones Timothy used and which ones were in use in the early church, came by inspiration. The original ones were uniquely inspired, but since the copies and translations have come from that original, we can say we have an inspired Bible. This does not negate necessary and careful textual criticism and examination of translations. It rather establishes our faith and certainty that when we do the above prayerfully and carefully, we do have the Word of God.

Inspiration is the key. We saved the best for last. 

The Holy Bible is God-breathed. Yes, many times God breathed in the realm of His creation. The Spirit, whose very Name means "Breath," brooded upon the face of the deep in the creative act of God. God breathed into Adam's nostrils and Adam became a living soul. All things are also sustained by God's breath. The great work of re-creation is a mighty breath of the Holy Spirit. We sing, "Breathe on me, Breath of God." The work of inspiration is another aspect of this Work of the Holy Spirit. Our Bible did not come by the will of men, not even the cooperative act of God and man. It came by the mighty will and work of God Himself. Just as He planned history from eternity, He planned all 66 books of the Bible and the place each would have in the finished canon. He saw to it that each writer would have the exact character and quality to write what portion was his. He moved them to desire to write and to take up the task, which could not have been an easy one. At the right time and place, God gave them revelation or enabled them to make perfect use of pre-existing information and guided their hand to write perfectly. The miracle is that each wrote in his own personal style and vocabulary, yet each wrote exactly as God wanted him to write. The end product was free from human error and possessed the stamp of God Himself. Eventually the church was guidedby the same Author to select the 66 books, so that we have a complete and finished revelation of God which we call the Bible. 

Amazing, yet not beyond imagination, for God is an Amazing God. All His works force us to say, "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him and through him and to him are all things: to whom be glory forever, Amen" (Rom. 11:33-36). 

What a blessing it is to observe the precious work of God in the Reformation of the mid-sixteenth century. 

There was a time when the church service and the Bible were in a foreign language, unintelligible to the common people. Living in Singapore we can identify with such difficulties. What a blessing to possess a Bible, to be able to read it and grow by it, to enjoy the lively preaching of God's Word which expounds its truth and applies its principles. 

Change has taken place. 

Not easily, for the pages of this history are written in the blood of the martyrs. 

God has seen fit to continue to equip us with the Word, so necessary to be properly furnished in order that we may be rich in good works. 

Not the heretic, nor the sword, is our greatest enemy today. 

It is plain old dust! And it is everywhere. 

May we who read, beware.


"Professor Luther"

This article first appeared in a special issue of the Standard Bearer on the Reformation under Martin Luther, October 15, 2016 (vol.93, #2) and was written by one of the editors, Prof. Barrett Gritters (PRC Seminary).

Young Luther

Martin Luther’s father, Hans Luther, had designs for his son to become a lawyer, but God had determined otherwise. “There are many devices in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand” (Prov. 19:21). As is said, “Man proposes, but God disposes.” Hans Luther devised son Martin’s way, but “the Lord directed his steps” (Prov. 16:9), first into the monastery, then into the university and seminary. In the end, Luther’s lifelong occupation was, as we would call it, seminary professor. By God’s design.

Because Hans Luther was a poor man, son Martin’s life began in poverty. The family was so poor that young Martin and his friends had to sing and beg for bread and board when they were at school away from home. But this was part of the sovereign God’s preparation of Luther for the important place he was to play in God’s reforming plans. The plan that Providence mapped out for Luther was God’s wise plan—poverty in his youth; a (probably too-strictly) disciplined home; the rigorous development of a mental discipline and work-ethic at gradeschool and university (before teaching, Luther obtained both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy); and most importantly, the God-created restlessness of a sinburdened soul that did not find peace until it rested in the sweet gospel of free grace.

After university studies and before law school began, God moved Luther to change course to the path of becoming a monk—to his father’s dismay and his friends’ great surprise. He chose the Augustinian Order of priests, both for its reputation for piety and its emphasis on learning. The rules of conduct were strict, but the standards of education were better. The Order of Augustinians had roots in the great church father Augustine, and had a strong emphasis on theology.

The long stories of Luther’s ‘conversion’ in the thunder storm, his pilgrimage to Rome, the development of his mind and heart in the gospel of free justification without works—all must be told elsewhere. Charles Terpstra’s article in this issue will mention biographies both old and new that you will want to read on cold nights this winter. What must be told here, at least briefly, is how this monk ended up in Wittenberg as a seminary professor on behalf of Reformation truth.

University of Wittenberg

In Luther’s youth, a German Elector named Frederick III founded a university in the little town of Wittenberg. This Frederick III was not that Frederick III who commissioned the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism. That Frederick was nicknamed “the Pious,” and was elector of the Palatinate. This Frederick III was Frederick “the Wise,” elector of Saxony, who died in 1525 when the other Frederick, of Heidelberg Catechism fame, was only ten years old. God used also this Frederick (“the Wise”) for Reformation causes in many ways, especially the later protection of Luther from the Roman Catholic authorities. This elector saw to it that Luther’s heresy trial was not held in Rome but in Germany; this elector refused to execute the papal bull against Luther; and this elector, after the Diet of Worms and the pope’s excommunication of him, even gave Luther refuge at the castle at Wartburg—where he stayed under a pseudonym for almost a year, translating the New Testament from Greek into German in less than ten weeks. This Frederick was truly used by God for the cause of Reformation!

This Frederick, at age thirty-eight, determined that Saxony needed another university. Little Wittenberg was too poor to support a university, but Frederick determined a way. He would see that capable priests became pastors in Wittenberg’s churches, which capable men could also teach at his new university. He founded the school in 1502, obtained Martin Luther in 1512, and Philip Melanchthon in 1518.

Luther’s appointment to the University of Wittenberg was as “Lecturer in Moral Philosophy,” which was the Roman Catholic way of saying, “Professor of Ethics.” In those days, “moral philosophy” included much more than teaching the ten commandments and the various vices and virtues of then-Roman Catholic doctrine, and certainly more than ethical dilemmas that a modern ethics course would treat. It embraced much of what we would call dogmatics, or systematic theology, with special focus on anthropology and soteriology, and required many semesters of instruction. Luther’s text was Augustine’s Enchiridion, the “handbook” of doctrine that was divided into three main parts: Faith, Hope, and Love. He taught in Wittenberg from 1512 until his death in 1546.

When we had opportunity a few summers ago to visit our friends in Giessen, Germany, we took the time to see the important Luther sites in Wittenberg, which combined have become the largest Reformation museum in the world. We toured the entire facility called Lutherhaus—the spacious convent facility where the Augustinian friars formerly lived, but was later made available to the university’s poor students, visiting preachers, and sometimes run-away nuns. On these grounds were Luther’s personal living quarters (Lutherstube), where Luther, Katie, six of their own children, an aunt, and several orphaned nieces and nephews stayed—along with several servants. We saw the pulpit Luther regularly ascended in the Stadtkirche, walked through the impressive hall and stood behind the (now) ornate desk from which he lectured to a large classrooms of students. One could not leave except with the deep sense that Luther gave his life to Christ’s church—to teaching and preaching—so that his students could be useful servants of that church.

Exemplary Professor Luther

If there were a way to prepare a newly appointed seminary professor (or to test the qualifications of one being considered for such appointment) by giving him a course on “Luther, Professor at Wittenberg,” the course could be valuable in many ways. Let me list a few of the elements that I would want to include if I would construct the course, preaching (God willing) to myself first of all.

Only with greatest reluctance did Luther accept the position of professor. It took over five years finally to bring him to be a priest in Wittenberg. He was certainly not unaware that the “pastorate” in that little town involved an appointment to the “seminary.” And it was this—not the ministry/priesthood itself, but the professorship at Wittenberg—about which he famously said, “Thus, I was drawn into the work of a teacher. If I had then known what I know now, ten horses would not have pulled me there.”1 No ambition here—fatal flaw for any servant of God.

Second, Luther was a master of the Bible. Although he did not see a copy of the entire Scripture until he came to the University, after that his life was consumed with reading God’s Word. The man God formed to begin the Reformation did not occupy his day reading about the Bible, although he certainly knew what the books said about the Bible. But he occupied himself with the Bible itself, so that he became a master of it. If a degree could be given to a man who “mastered” the Bible, Luther would have obtained it. “Dr. Martinus Luder, Master and Doctor of Holy Scripture” his diploma could have been inscribed. Listen to Prof. Luther:

You should diligently study the Word of God and by no means imagine that you know it. Let him who is able to read take a psalm in the morning, or some other chapter, and study it for a while. This is what I do. When I get up in the morning, I pray and recite the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer with the children, adding any one of the psalms…I do not want to let the mildew of the notion grow that I know them well enough.2

Luther also knew there were improper motives for reading Scripture: “For there are many who seek their personal interests in the Word, namely, how to obtain honor by it and how to enjoy a great reputation in the world, considering godliness a trade…. But woe to these.”

He never became “old enough” to stop reading Scripture systematically and at length. When he was still fifty years old he said, “For a number of years I have now annually read through the Bible twice. If the Bible were a large, mighty tree and all its words were little branches, I have tapped at all the branches, eager to know what there was and what it had to offer.” That he read the Bible more than comments on the Bible he made clear:

The Bible is being buried by the wealth of commentaries, and the text is being neglected…. As a young man I accustomed myself to using the Bible. By frequent reading I came to know the place where a given passage is to be found. Thereafter I directed my attention to the commentators. But finally I had to disregard all of them and drown myself in the Bible, for it is better to see with your own eyes than with foreign eyes.3

Third, Prof. Luther was a man of prayer. He engaged in no study except it was preceded by and permeated with prayer. “That the Holy Scriptures cannot be penetrated by study and talent is most certain. Therefore your first duty is to begin to pray, and to pray to this effect that if it please God to accomplish something for His glory—not for yours or any other person’s—He very graciously grant you a true understanding of His words.” It must have been his pious parents at home that formed this habit in him, for even when he was younger one of his colleagues reported that Luther told him, “He who prays aright has finished his studies more than half.”4 Fervency in prayer and frequency in Scripture were at the core of Luther’s qualifications.

Fourth, what made Luther outstanding in his day was his unique view of a theological professor. He was not to write theology for theologians, spinning arguments only intellectuals could understand. Nor was the professor to keep himself in his ivory tower, aloof from the real life of the church and from his students. Luther was a man of the people, aiming his sermons at the common man and constructing his theological lectures with the welfare of the church in view. He was not, that is, a professional training more professionals, but a theologian preparing men of God to serve God and His people, “in the trenches,” as they say. So, in addition to his important formal lectures, Luther sat regularly with his students and others who lived at Lutherhaus, and talked and talked and talked. The conversations were transcribed. Six large volumes of this “Table Talk” have been published. One learns about the man by reading these, too.

When the professor reads Luther, he will certainly be entertained; but especially he will be humbled by the open piety of Professor Luther. Luther was spiritual, personal, and experiential in the right way. Like John the Baptist, he pointed his students to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God that bore Luther’s sins away and whose righteousness became Luther’s righteousness, freely. At age thirty-three, before he posted the Ninety-five Theses in 1517, he gave truly pious counsel to a friend cast down:

Now I would like to know about the state of your soul. Have you learned to despise your own righteousness and to put your trust in the righteousness of Christ alone? Many do not know the righteousness of God which is given us abundantly and freely in Christ; but they endeavor to do good works and depend on their own efforts, their own virtue, their own merits. You were full of this great error when you were here, and I was full of it. Even now I must fight against it, and have not finished. Therefore, my beloved brother, learn Christ and Him crucified. Learn to despair of thyself and to say to Him: ‘Thou art my righteousness, but I am Thy sin. Thou hast assumed what was mine and given me what was Thine. Thou hast assumed what Thou wast not, and hast given me what I was not.’ If by our own exertions we could attain peace of conscience, why, then, did Christ die?5

There are many other traits that would make up a useful course on “Luther, Professor at Wittenberg,” but no course would be complete without pointing to Brother Luther’s boldness. Of all the men of his day who should have done it, it was left to Luther to bell the cat. And what a cat to bell! Certainly, Luther did not create battles for the sake of being a warrior. He also knew the difference between his friends and his enemies. His friends he treated courteously, charitably, even if in disagreement and intending to correct them. But his enemies he treated with the fierceness of a warrior fighting for the survival of his own town and family. When it came to conflict, he did not flinch. Never cowed into submission or intimidated, he only grew stronger in the Lord. So when a friend once warned him, “They will not stand it!” he responded, “Suppose they have to stand it?”

At greatest personal cost.

“May Christ live, and Martinus die.” 6

At one point, before the alternatives of recanting his faith or being beheaded he exclaimed: “If I had a thousand heads, I would rather have them all cut off than to revoke.”

Exemplary, indeed.

1 There are many versions of this quotation. Probably Luther said something similar in different situations. This comes from Donald K. McKim, The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 147.

2 From a sermon preached in 1530, on Luke 23:12-35, from What Luther Says (St. Louis: Concordia, 1991), 79.

3 Hugh T. Kerr, A Compend of Luther’s Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1943), 16.

4 Quoted in John Louis Nuelsen, Luther: The Leader (New York: The Abingdon Press, 1917), 23.

5 Nuelsen, 46.

6 Nuelsen, 70, 71. 


The Ninety-five Theses

This article first appeared in a special issue of the Standard Bearer on the Reformation under Martin Luther, October 15, 2016 (vol.93, #2).

The Ninety-five Theses

More than anything else, what do we need in order to live happily in this world and to die in peace? Is it not the certain knowledge that our many sins, which are so great and terrible, are forgiven by God because of the death of Christ? Is it not the assurance that after this life we will go to be with Christ because not even death can separate us from His love? All who receive this gospel of salvation through Christ by a true faith have joy and comfort in life and in death. This gospel of the glory and grace of God, which assures us of our forgiveness in Christ, was lost in the Middle Ages. But our faithful God restored it to His church in the sixteenth century through many mighty men, beginning with Martin Luther and his Ninety-five Theses.  

The Evil of Indulgences  

In 1517, and for many years prior to it, the people of God were robbed of the only true comfort of the gospel by men such as John Tetzel, and indeed by the entire system of Roman Catholicism. Tetzel was a Dominican monk commissioned by Albert the Archbishop of Mainz, with the support of a bull of Pope Leo X, to preach and sell indulgences. The sale of indulgences went back hundreds of years and was supported by the medieval scholastic theologians. But it developed over time from bad to worse.

Indulgences had to do with penance, one of the seven sacraments of Rome. Jesus began His earthly ministry calling men to repent (Matt. 4:17). In the Latin Vulgate, the Greek word for “repent” was translated poenitentium agite (“do penance”) and explained to be a sacrament. Penance required three actions for one to receive remission of sins: contrition, confession (to a priest), and satisfaction (by good works). God alone could forgive the eternal punishment of sin. But the church had control over temporal punishments, including purgatory. For the church to grant a man remission of temporal punishments, to shorten his suffering in purgatory, that man had to do penance, that is, be sorry for his sin, confess it to a priest, and make satisfaction by doing good works.

Enter indulgences (letters of remission). If we could ask, “What are indulgences, Sir Tetzel?”, we would hear him say, “Well, if you give money to the church, I will give you a letter on behalf of the pope that cancels some of your punishments in purgatory (or some of the punishments of your loved one who is in purgatory!). If you do not want to be bothered with doing good works, consider this: you can purchase indulgences instead of doing good works!”

And if we could respond, “How can that be, lord Tetzel?”, he would say, “Very simply, the pope, the great Vicar of Christ, has at his disposal a vast treasury filled with the superabundant merits of Christ and the saints, and he will reckon some of them to your account, if you pay! Do you want to suffer in the flames of purgatory?! How can you in good conscience enjoy your life while your dear, deceased mother is enduring the fires of purgatory?! Buy indulgences! For as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

In 1517, in nearby Wittenberg, there was a man who was beginning to see the light of the true gospel, and he was infuriated with Tetzel. Already on October 31, 1516 Martin Luther had preached a sermon warning people not to trust in indulgences. But in the Fall of 1517 he felt the need to do something more to expose this evil, by starting a public debate to bring it to an end. He wrote ninety-five theses, succinct statements against the abuses of indulgences. By this action God lit a flame that would ignite the Reformation of His church and again put the “true treasure of the church,…the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” (thesis 62) into the hands of His people.  

“The True Treasure of the Church…”  

Luther’s Ninety-five Theses are a doctrinal treasure, yet at the same time still strangely Roman Catholic. The theses are like a diamond mined out of the earth, but still in need of refinement. Luther himself later lamented about “how weak I was, and in what a fluctuating state of mind, when I began this business. I was then a monk and a mad papist, and so submersed in the dogmas of the Pope that I would have readily murdered any person who denied obedience to the Pope.”1 At this early date, the dawn of the Reformation, “Luther had as yet no idea of reforming the Catholic Church.”2

In the Ninety-five Theses he does not condemn indulgences as such, only the abuse of them; he does not talk about justification by faith alone; he still believes in purgatory; and he still acknowledges the power and authority of the pope. For example, he writes in thesis 71, “Let him who speaks against the truth concerning papal indulgences be anathema and accursed.”3 In thesis 16, “Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ the same as despair, fear, and assurance of salvation.” Again, in thesis 50, “Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.” Luther gave the pope the benefit of the doubt that he had good motives for selling indulgences.

Yet when we read the Ninety-five Theses with the benefit of knowing the doctrinal development that followed, we can see the diamond clearly enough. We see here “the mighty working of an earnest mind and conscience intensely occupied with the problem of sin, repentance, and forgiveness, and struggling for emancipation from the fetters of tradition.”4 Luther cuts through the system of his day, and lays his finger on the heart of the matter, when he writes in thesis 62, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” The true treasure is not an invisible treasury of extra merits that the pope can grant to those who pay. But the true treasure is the holy glad tidings of the grace of God in granting full remission of sins to all who repent and turn to Christ. For, as he writes in thesis 36, “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters”; and in thesis 37, “any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.”

One historian writes,

Luther’s Theses stated that even the Pope had no special powers beyond those declaratory powers given to all the priesthood. God was placed once more into the foreground as “the Lord over life and death.” Once the soul had left this life, asserted Luther, no Catholic canon controlled it any longer. Religion was once more restored to a personal relationship between man and God, a spiritual inner attitude in man known only to God, between which the clergy with their sacerdotal system could not intervene.5

Thus, in reply to Tetzel’s audacious claim, Luther wrote in thesis 28, “It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.”  

“The Entire Life of Believers…”

Furthermore, Luther criticizes the outward show of religion in regard to penance and indulgences. In the first three theses, he writes,

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortifications of the flesh.

Luther was appalled at what he observed among his people in Wittenberg: the bold waving around of indulgence letters and the claim of being forgiven, while continuing in awful sins. Already on February 24, 1517 Luther preached a sermon at Wittenberg in which he “deplored the fact that people were regarding sin so lightly and that they seemed to have so little fear of punishment. He added that indulgences should perhaps be called an Ablass,6 because they permitted people to sin.”7 Luther emphasized the true meaning of repentance: when Jesus said “repent,” He meant that the entire life of believers must be an ongoing repentance, a constant changing of the mind followed by those outward mortifications of the flesh required, for example, by the apostle in Colossians 3:5.

Followed also by good works! Luther warned that “papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest the people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love” (thesis 41). “Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences” (thesis 43). “Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath” (thesis 45). Luther was not only zealous for the true doctrine of the gospel, but also for the Christian life of good works.  

The Relevance of the Theses  

Clearly, then, the Ninety-five Theses are powerfully relevant to us today. They call us to remember what our true treasure is, “the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” in Jesus Christ. Let us not put more value on money and what money can buy! Let us not put trust in what money can buy, as so many customers of the indulgence market did. We have a marvelous treasure in the gospel of Christ. We have the full and free remission of our sins by faith in Christ. We have the blessed assurance that after this life we are not headed to purgatory, but have a place in glory with Christ.

Moreover, the theses call us to a life of repentance and good works. Let us not be deceived. Let us not think that we can go through the motions of outward religion, sitting in church on Sunday, saying a prayer before we eat, and so on, while also indulging our sinful desires and laying up for ourselves treasures on earth. Luther shouts to us down the corridors of history, “The entire life of believers is to be one of repentance! He who gives to the poor does better than he who has an empty show of religion!”

Still more, the theses call us to take our stand on the Word of God, and to be always reforming. We do well to examine regularly, in the light of Holy Scripture, the system of doctrine and life that we call our own. We who are church leaders, let us examine whether we are preaching the Word of God faithfully, or perpetuating and developing errors. Errors develop. The idea of indulgences went from bad to worse until it became a monstrous evil. Let us learn from Luther how to be courageous, to stand and speak the truth, if need be, in the midst of overwhelming opposition.

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Although no public debate took place in Wittenberg, as Luther had proposed in the introduction to his theses, loud voices from the Romish side strongly condemned them. But God used them to kindle a flame that would purify His church and once again display the diamond of the gospel that had been hidden for so long. Surely, the anniversary of this event, known to us as Reformation Day, is worthy of remembering and celebrating in profound thankfulness to God every year.   

1 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1950), 157.

2 Schaff, 144.

3 All quotations of the theses are from Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Ed. Timothy F. Lull, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 21-29.

4 Schaff, 158.

5 E. G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times: The Reformation from a New Perspective. (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1950), 320.

6 German word meaning “indulgence” but in the sense of “permission, tolerance.”

7 Schwiebert, Luther and His Times, 313.


Luther and Scripture

This article first appeared in a special issue of the Standard Bearer on the Reformation under Martin Luther, October 15, 2016 (vol.93, #2).

Luther and Scripture

Martin Luther would be unknown to us if it were not for Scripture. The Spirit did not write the name “Martin Luther” in Scripture as He did the name “Moses” or “Malachi.” But the Spirit wrote the Scriptures in Martin Luther, giving to him the convictions that made him the historical giant that he was, and propelling him into the spotlight of the ecclesiastical and national scene in sixteenth-century Germany. Without Scripture and the profound impact it had on his life, Martin Luther was just another man that time, like an ever-rolling stream, would silently bear away. Sure, he was a brilliant man, industrious in character and dynamic in personality; but that alone would not have made him known.

We never would have heard of Luther if it were not for Scripture. Scripture made Luther, Luther. It made him the man that the two most powerful and recognizable figures of the world of his day—the pope and emperor Charles V—had to deal with. It made him the pivotal figure of whom all secular historians must give an account in recounting the shaping of the sixteenth century. It made him the dear father we Reformed believers remember as a token of God’s covenant faithfulness.

Instead of presenting Luther’s doctrine of Scripture by drawing from Luther’s writings on the subject of Scripture, we will draw from Luther’s life. What Luther did with the Scriptures tells us as much of his view of the Scriptures as what he wrote about them.

Martin Luther joyfully lived in Scripture. It was his Delight.

Martin Luther boldly struck with Scripture. It was his Hammer.

Martin Luther humbly stood under Scripture. It was his Authority.

If we are truly sons and daughters of the Reformation, the same must be said of us.

Luther’s Delight

While Luther did address the topic of the inspiration of Scripture and other related doctrines, his writings abound in exhaustive treatments of the value of Scripture. Luther knew from experience that Scripture is not a book of dead letters for a few elevated clerics to pour over in vain study, but the very Word of God, revealing the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ as sweetness to the soul of every believer. “How sweet are thy words unto my taste, yea sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103). Luther’s life proves he delighted in Scripture as sweetness to his soul.

First, Scripture continually delivered him from spiritual unrest and even depression. Often, but especially in his early years as a monk in the Augustinian monasteries, true peace of heart and comfort of conscience were painfully elusive. He grew up in the medieval religious system that was established on and that played on fear—the fear of failing to be a good enough monk in establishing his own righteousness by the law, and thus incurring the inexpressibly terrifying wrath of God in purgatory and hell. Profoundly painful were the inner torments of miserable Martin’s bitter soul.

But how the Scriptures filled his soul with rapturous delight! In 1513, God’s wonderful providence brought Luther to the university in Wittenberg to lecture from the Scriptures. Although he was initially apprehensive that a spiritually sick man could teach others, Luther began to pour over the Scriptures for class lectures, and it was in that personal study that God showed him the gospel of peace in Jesus Christ. He began with the Psalms. How sweet was Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” Luther could not immediately penetrate to the meaning. Those had to be the words of Christ, he thought. Christ had to have experienced the agony of God’s judgments in hellish torments, a suffering far worse than anything Martin himself had ever endured. Why else would Christ cry like that? But why did God punish and forsake the sinlessly perfect Christ? How could…? Ah… then the disquieted monk was given to see the gospel of grace: Christ had taken Martin Luther’s sins and the curse due to Martin Luther for them. God forsook Christ for Martin Luther.

Near the end of his commentary on the first verse of Psalm 22, Luther, speaking from experience, writes,

I have dwelt a little at length upon these things, in order that I might commend unto you more highly the grace of faith and the mercy of God, and that you might have a more full knowledge of Christ. For by this verse those are instructed who are exercised in the depths of the abyss of death and hell, and they are here furnished with an antidote against despair.1

Second, that Luther delighted in Scripture is witnessed by his motivation to begin and complete the incredibly difficult and historically monumental work of translating Scripture into German. After the Diet of Worms where Luther made his famous stand in 1521, he spent some time hiding in the Wartburg Castle and there began his project. His New Testament was finished quickly and published in 1522. However, the whole Bible was not completed and published as one volume until 1534. The work was as challenging as any work could be. To a friend Luther remarked, as only he could,

We are sweating over the work of putting the Prophets into German. God, how much of it there is, and how hard it is to make these Hebrew writers talk German! They resist us, and do not want to leave their Hebrew and imitate our German barbarisms. It is like making a nightingale leave her own sweet song and imitate the monotonous voice of a cuckoo, which she detests.2

Sweat and all, Luther pressed on determined to put a German Bible in the hands of the people. Had he never tasted Scripture’s sweetness, Luther would have abandoned the project. But he was determined to have others share his delight in the Word of God read and preached.

Third, Luther’s delight in Scripture as the Word of God was in part what energized him later in life to reject the teaching and antics of the radicals and revolutionaries like Thomas Munster and the Zwickau Prophets, who claimed to have special gifts of prophesy and continued revelations from the Spirit. This was a deeply personal matter with Luther, for if in the deep despair of his younger days he had to look beyond the living, objective Word of God in Scripture in expectation of some special, private revelation from the Spirit or had to look to his own spirit within, he would have found nothing but darkness.

Finally, it should be noted that the reason Luther was able to draw from Scripture delightful sweetness for his soul was that Luther believed all of Scripture testified of Christ. Luther read Christ; but his great service to the church was that he entered the pulpit and preached Christ. A half-year before he died, Luther preached a sermon on John 5:39ff. that was so well received in the city of Halle that the city council presented him with a golden cup. In the sermon he reveals the secret to profitable Bible-reading and preaching: “Therefore he who would correctly and profitably read Scripture should see to it that he finds Christ in it; then he finds life eternal without fail.”3

Luther delighted in reading, teaching, and preaching Scripture, because he found the sweetness of the gospel of Christ there.

Luther’s Hammer

If anyone in church history could swing a hammer it was Martin Luther. His primary hammer was not what he may have used to post his theses to Wittenberg’s church door on October 31, 1517. His hammer was Scripture: “Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29). Because his voluminous writings were faithful explanations of the truth of divine Scripture, the powerful Word of God was communicated through those writings, making them many hammers to break in pieces the rock of Roman Catholic false doctrine lodged in the hearts of men. Luther’s writings were not like the fluff of many Christian publishing houses today. His writings infuriated the pope, served as kindling for the enemies’ fires, and continually jeopardized his safety. But the Reformer kept taking the hammer of God’s Word, swinging away in the service of the truth that salvation is of grace alone and, therefore, through faith alone in Christ alone.

With his Ninety-five Theses of 1517 Luther smashed into pieces the lie of papal authority and the efficacy of indulgences captured in Tetzel’s famed jingle, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” This was only the beginning.

With his “Address to the Christian Nobility” of 1520 Luther hammered away at the Romish doctrine of papal authority and infallibility, the sole authority of the Romish church to interpret Scripture, and the corruption of the distinction between clergy and laity. With the heavy “Babylonian Captivity of the Church” written also in 1520, Luther pounded away at the entire system of works-righteousness by smashing to pieces the Roman Catholic idea of the sacerdotal system and the sacraments—in particular the accursed idolatry that is the mass, so central to the life and work of the priests and of all the people. It is said that even Erasmus read this tract and declared that the breach with Rome was irreparable. Luther’s commentary on Galatians, published in 1535, was another heavy-hitting piece of writing.

Not every blow fell upon the rock of Rome. The erroneous theology of the aforementioned Erasmus also took a pounding. Erasmus was not one of the fathers of the Reformation, but a Dutch scholar of the Renaissance merely looking for some moral reform in the church. In response to Erasmus’ treatise in support of natural man’s free will, Luther published a careful point-for-point refutation in 1525 entitled On the Bondage of the Will. This was a work Luther reckoned to be among his greatest. It contains some of Luther’s doctrine of Scripture, including the perspicuity of Scripture, the authority of Scripture, and the rule of interpreting Scripture that requires taking the words in their grammatical and literal sense unless circumstances plainly forbid it. But especially, this work contains one Scripture passage after another, carefully explained and applied as a continual hammering against the heresy of free will and in praise of sovereign grace.

Additionally, Luther had to bring the hammer of Scripture down upon the practices of the Anabaptist radicals and revolutionaries in the Peasants’ War of 1524-1525.

Man’s word, even when vehemently expressed, as Luther’s often was, is straw. God’s Word is the Hammer. Luther’s writings were like hammers because they were consciously and clearly grounded in the divinely inspired Word of God. One Luther scholar said of him,

We know of no man’s writings that are more saturated with Scripture than those of this great champion of the Bible. Typical is his impatient exclamation in a writing against a papal antagonist: “Give me Scripture, Scripture, Scripture. Do you hear me? Scripture.” We repeat: the permeation of Luther’s writings by both the letter and spirit of Scripture is one of his outstanding characteristics as an author.4

Luther’s Authority

“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable…” (II Tim. 3:16). Luther found Scripture profitable for sweet comfort in his personal life and profitable for destroying the strongholds of Satan in the church. But Scripture is only profitable because it is “God-breathed,” possessing the authority of God Himself. The most important truth of Scripture believed by Luther was the truth of Scripture’s absolute, underived, unquestionable authority. Especially this conviction made Luther, Luther. Two examples of Luther’s submission to and confidence in the authority of Scripture stand out in his life.

The first is the Leipzig Debate. Before Luther was officially excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church, his teachings were challenged and debates were arranged. At Leipzig he engaged in an important debate in 1522 with a university professor named John Eck, a brilliant and formidable foe. The debate was about indulgences, but Luther went deeper and made papal authority the fundamental issue. He recognized that indulgences are based upon an erroneous doctrine of papal authority. During the debate Eck appealed to the decisions of church councils, to the decretals of the pope, and to history. It was not that Luther rejected the authority of church councils or the authority of lawfully ordained officebearers or the testimony of history. But because Scripture is the inspired and infallible Word of God, it has supreme authority, such that to it the pope himself must submit. Thus Luther appealed to Scripture. In the course of the debate Luther declared,

A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it. As for the pope’s decretal on indulgences I say that neither the Church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture. For the sake of Scripture we should reject pope and councils.5

By far, the most memorable event in Luther’s life was his famous stand before the ecclesiastical and civil powers at the Diet of Worms in 1521. He was the number-one heretic on the most-wanted list of the church and the state. Luther knew his life was in jeopardy. He came to the Diet of Worms and was asked to recant and renounce his writings. He would gladly have thrown any of his works into the fire—his hammers into the sea—if it could be proved that they were in contradiction of Scripture. Standing before the emperor himself, Luther declared those familiar words,

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of people and councils for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.6

The humble monk had no fear before these earthly powers because he stood under the supreme authority of Scripture as the final arbiter of truth. To stand under the authority of Scripture is to stand under the protection of the Almighty.

Sola Scriptura.

1 Martin Luther, Complete Commentary on the first Twenty-Two Psalms, (accessed September 13, 2016).

2 Martin Luther, “Prefaces to the Books of the Bible” in Luther’s Works, American Edition, vol. 35 (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 229.

3 Cited in Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 69-70.

4 Plass, xv.

5 Cited in Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), 103.

6 Bainton, 180.  


Luther, Erasmus, and the Bondage of the Will (2)

This article first appeared in the November 1, 2001 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.78, No.3), the second part of an article that began in a special Reformation issue on Martin Luther. It was written by Prof. Russell Dykstra, professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Luther, Erasmus, and the Bondage of the Will (2)

Luther's Bondage of the Will was a thorough refutation of the notion of a free will in fallen man as set forth by the world-renowned Desiderius Erasmus in his refined discourse entitled On the Freedom of the Will. This was the crucial issue in Luther's mind. He praised Erasmus because he alone among Luther's opponents had recognized that the doctrine of free will was "the grand turning point of the cause." Luther wrote, "You, and you alone saw, what was the grand hinge upon which the whole turned" (Section 168).*

As noted in the first part of this article (October 15, 2001 issue), Erasmus desired that the discussion be conducted peacefully. He affirmed his belief in Scripture, but insisted that at issue was the interpretation of Scripture. He claimed that Luther stood virtually alone in his position among theologians going back to the ancient fathers.

Erasmus' arguments in support of the doctrine of free will are mainly these:

1.The fact that God commands implies that man has the ability to obey the commands. 

2.If man does not have the free will to obey God and/or to believe, then God is unjust to demand it of man. 

3.Erasmus denies that natural man can only do evil. Even the pagans, he insists, do good.

4.Erasmus maintains that natural man's will is weak, but not powerless. Man's will needs grace to accomplish the good. He distinguishes several kinds of grace supposedly given to man to assist him.

5.Perhaps the most important element in Erasmus' apology for free will is that man can merit with God.

How, then, does Luther answer this brilliant scholar and defender of free will? In a word, Luther devastates Erasmus' arguments. First of all, Luther contemns Erasmus' efforts, so much so that he considered not even answering it. Writes Luther, "On so great a subject, you say nothing but what has been said before: therefore, you say less about, and attribute more unto 'Free-will,' than the Sophists have hitherto said and attributed." Luther contends that all these arguments have often been refuted. He adds, "I greatly feel for you for having defiled your most beautiful and ingenious language with such vile trash" (Introduction).

As to the dispute itself, Luther addresses Erasmus' desire that these discussions ought to be conducted without fighting. Luther points out that this is not the way of the history of the church, or of the spread of the gospel, because

[t]he world and its god cannot and will not bear the Word of the true God: and the true God cannot and will not keep silence. While, therefore, these two Gods are at war with each other, what can there be else in the whole world, but tumult?

Therefore, to wish to silence these tumults, is nothing else, than to wish to hinder the Word of God, and to take it out of the way.... And as to myself, if I did not see these tumults, I should say the Word of God was not in the world (Section 19).

Luther identifies the central issue, and its unspeakable importance. It is essential, he writes, "for a Christian to know, whether or not the will does any thing in those things which pertain unto Salvation. Nay, let me tell you, this is the very hinge upon which our discussion turns." That, because it involves knowing what God's power does, and thus knowing God Himself. If there is anyone who yet thinks that the issue of a free will is of no importance for the Christian faith, he must hear Luther:

But if I know not the distinction between our working and the power of God, I know not God Himself. And if I know not God, I cannot worship Him, praise Him, give Him thanks, nor serve Him; for I shall not know how much I ought to ascribe unto myself, and how much unto God (Section 7).

As to the term "free-will," Luther prefers that the term never be used, because it deceives people with "the most destructive mockery." It implies that men have the power of free choice in the matter of salvation, when the opposite is true. If the term must be used, Luther would have all to remember that man has

as to his goods and possessions the right of using, acting, and omitting, according to his "Free-will"; although, at the same time, that same "Free-will" is overruled by the Free-will of God alone, just as He pleases: but that, God-ward, or in things which pertain unto salvation or damnation, he has no "Free-will," but is a captive, slave, and servant, either to the will of God, or to the will of Satan (Section 26).

Luther answers the charge that he is opposed by the church of all ages, which would mean, if Luther is correct, that God allowed His church to be in error for centuries. First of all, Luther asserts that Augustine is very much in his corner, a fact that Luther demonstrates repeatedly. Secondly, he points out that the church, externally considered, from Israel to Luther's day, often did err. Yet, he insists that the church of God and the members are hidden, and that God was pleased to preserve His saints even through those times. The calling, therefore, is to try the spirits. This every Christian can and must do because, on the one hand, he has the Spirit, and, on the other hand, the Scriptures are clear. Luther demonstrates this by quoting copiously from Scripture itself. He asks rhetorically, "[I]f the Scripture be obscure or ambiguous, what need was there for its being sent down from heaven?" Then he turns the argument back on Erasmus—"And why do you also, Erasmus, prescribe to us a form of Christianity, if the Scriptures be obscure to you!" (Section 36).

It is worth noting that Luther demands logical consistency in the formulation of doctrine. He shreds Erasmus' arguments by exposing the contradictions found throughout. He notes that Erasmus' definition of free will is hopelessly vague and thus open to various interpretations. Erasmus claims that man has a will able to choose the good without grace, and in other places maintains that man can will nothing good without the grace of God. Writes Luther, "Hence then, Erasmus, outstripping all others, has two 'Free-wills'; and they, militating against each other!" (Section 48).

What then of the many conditional statements in Scripture adduced by Erasmus—"If thou wilt hear" or "if thou wilt do"? Do these prove that man has a free will to do or to hear? Or is it so, that by these God mocks man, because man cannot obey them anyway? Luther rejects those conclusions. He writes, "Why is this not rather drawn as a conclusion—therefore, God tries us, that by His law He might bring us to a knowledge of our impotency, if we be His friends; or, He thereby righteously and deservedly insults and derides us, if we be His proud enemies" (Section 52).

Similarly, Luther dismisses the Pelagian error that the various commandments of God imply that man has the ability to keep them.

And this is the place, where I take occasion to enforce this my general reply:—that man, by the words of the law, is admonished and taught what he ought to do, not what he can do: that is, that he is brought to know his sin, but not to believe that he has any strength in himself. Wherefore, friend Erasmus, as often as you throw in my teeth the Words of the law, so often I throw in yours that of Paul, "By the law is the knowledge of sin,"—not of the power of the will. Heap together, therefore, out of the large Concordances all the imperative words into one chaos, provided that, they be not words of the promise but of the requirement of the law only, and I will immediately declare, that by them is always shewn what men ought to do, not what they can do, or do do (Section 56).

Furthermore, Luther takes pains to show that Erasmus proves too much. If all these conditional sentences and commands indicate that man can will to do what God enjoins, it necessarily follows that the same statements prove that man can actually do what God commands. Repeatedly Luther reminds Erasmus of the necessary implications—there is no need for the Spirit or grace of God to work in man. He can keep the commandments; he can save himself. Indeed, there is no need even of Christ or the cross.

Luther is quick to remind Erasmus that the Scriptures present a very different picture, namely, "a man, who is not only bound, miserable, captive, sick, and dead, but who, by the operation of his lord, Satan, to his other miseries, adds that of blindness: so that he believes he is free, happy, at liberty, powerful, whole, and alive" (Section 58).

The question naturally arises, why then do some believe and obey, and others do not, if all men are in bondage. Luther asserts that this is due to the "SECRET AND TO BE FEARED WILL OF GOD, who, according to His own counsel, ordains whom, and such as He will, to be receivers and partakers of the preached and offered mercy" (Section 64). Even the conditional sentences must be understood in light of predestination. Writes Luther,

"If thou wilt": that is, if thou be such with God, that he shall deign to give thee this will to keep the commandments, thou shalt be saved. According to which manner of speaking, it is given us to understand both truths—that we can do nothing ourselves; and that, if we do any thing, God works that in us (Section 68).

Luther takes on the giant—the issue of merit. Luther rejects Erasmus' conclusion that the promises of reward prove that the will can merit with God. He reminds Erasmus that the promises are exactly that—gracious promises of what God will do. In addition, he points out that these are promises to God's people, and the promise is no longer to the supposed free will of fallen man, but to men "raised above 'Free-will' in grace, and justified" (Section 69).

As far as anyone ever being worthy of reward, that is impossible, Luther maintains. For if "Free-will" cannot of itself will good, but wills good by grace alone, (for we are speaking of "Free-will" apart from grace and inquiring into the power which properly belongs to each) who does not see, that that good will, merit, and reward, belong to grace alone (Section 70).

On the other hand, Luther draws the logical consequence that if it be allowed that man can by free will choose the good, then God is "robbed of His power and wisdom to elect." He adds:

Nay, we shall at length come to this: that men may be saved and damned without God's knowing anything at all about it; as not having determined by certain election who should be saved and who should be damned; but having set before all men in general His hardening goodness and long-suffering, and His mercy shewing correction and punishment, and left them to choose for themselves whether they would be saved or damned (Section 81).

Not only so, but Luther points to other considerations which absolutely rule out the possibility of a free will in man, namely, God's sovereignty and His foreknowledge. God is omnipotent, otherwise "He would be a ridiculous God." At the same time, God "knows and foreknows all things, and neither can err nor be deceived." The "inevitable consequence" is that there is no such thing as a free will. Luther recognizes that this is an offense to man, "that the God, who is set forth as being so full of mercy and goodness, should, of His mere will, leave men, harden them, and damn them, as though He delighted in the sins, and in the great and eternal torments of the miserable." Luther's response?

And who would not be offended? I myself have been offended more than once, even unto the deepest abyss of desperation; nay, so far, as even to wish that I had never been born a man; that is, before I was brought to know how healthful that desperation was, and how near it was unto grace (Section 94).

But that man should be offended does not lead Luther to tamper with the truth of Scripture. God is sovereign and omniscient. Man is not free, though his sins are his own, not God's, for man is not forced to sin.

Having demolished the arguments of Erasmus, Luther contends for the grace of God against free will. He demonstrates the truth from Scripture that all men are depraved, guilty, and incapable of doing or willing good. Man's salvation is all of grace. Man merits nothing. His righteousness is from Christ, imputed freely and by grace.

Hence Luther reveals the seriousness of the matter when he writes, "And I would also, that the advocates for 'Free-will' be admonished in this place, that when they assert 'Free-will,' they are deniers of Christ. For if I obtain grace by my own endeavours, what need have I of the grace of Christ for the receiving of my grace?" (Section 157). And again, "And thus, while you establish 'Free-will,' you make Christ void, and bring the whole Scripture to destruction. And though you may pretend, verbally, that you confess Christ; yet, in reality and in heart, you deny Him" (Section 159).

So far Luther, defender of the irresistible, saving grace of God in Christ. * All quotations from The Bondage of the Will are taken from the translation by Henry Cole, printed by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1976.

1. Luther's Works, vol. 26, pp. 403, 404, "Lecture on Galatians 4:9."

2. Luther's Works, vol. 31, p. 40, "Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 16." An excellent analysis of the "Heidelberg Disputation" is found in Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans: 1997).

3. Luther's Works, vol. 34, p. 114, "Theses Concerning Faith, 69, 70."

4. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, p. 63.

5. Luther, The Bondage of the Will, ed. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston (London: James Clarke: 1957), pp. 103, 104

6. Luther's Works, vol. 31, p. 40, "Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 25, 26." Quoted from Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, pp. 103-110.

7. Luther's Works, vol. 24, pp. 264, 265, "Sermon on John 15:17, 18."

8. Quoted from Leaver, Luther on Justification, p. 81, note 55.

9. Luther's Works, vol. 29, p. 224, "Lectures on Hebrews (10:19)."

10. Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman Press: 1988), p. 54.

11. Luther's Works, vol. 51, p. 282, "Sermon on the Sum of the Christian Life."

12. Luther's Works, vol. 14, pp. 37, 38, "Sermon on Psalm 117."

13. Luther's Works, vol. 54, p. 340, "Table Talk."


Luther, Erasmus, and the Bondage of the Will (1)

This article first appeared in the October 15, 2001 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.78, No.2) in a special Reformation issue on Martin Luther and was written by Prof. Russell Dykstra, professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Luther, Erasmus, and the Bondage of the Will (1)

Certainly the single best-known work of Martin Luther is The Bondage of the Will. This masterpiece deserves the honorable position it holds not only in the body of Luther's works, but also in the writings of all the Reformers. It sets forth the truth of God's sovereignty in salvation, and eliminates any possibility that man contributed to his own salvation. This is the heart of Luther's theology. This is the heart of the great Reformation. And this is the heart of the Reformed truth still today.

That The Bondage of the Will should be written is obviously due to the sovereign providence of God. Early on in the conflict Luther came to the conviction that Rome's teaching on man's will was wrong, and he set forth his views in brief. Already in 1518 in the Heidelberg Disputation Luther affirmed that "since the fall of Adam, or after actual sin, free will exists only in name, and when it does what it can it commits sin." This was one of the forty-one articles condemned by Pope Leo X in 1520. In response, Luther wrote An Assertion of all the Articles of Martin Luther Condemned by the Latest Bull of Leo X.¹ In this work Luther is even stronger. He writes,

So it is necessary to retract this article. For I was wrong in saying that free choice before grace is a reality only in name. I should have said simply: free choice is in reality a fiction, or a name without reality. For no one has it in his power to think a good or a bad thought, but everything (as Wycliffe's article condemned at Constance rightly teaches) happens by absolute necessity.

And so it might have remained, were it not for God sovereignly directing the events of the Reformation, and forcing Luther to develop this truth more fully and explicitly.The means God used to bring this about was primarily one man, namely, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasmus was an older contemporary of Luther who is sometimes wrongly associated with the Reformation. He was a world-renowned Renaissance scholar whom God used in various ways to serve the cause of the Reformation. Erasmus prepared a scholarly Greek text of the New Testament which was widely used by the Reformers. He was vociferous in his criticism of the immorality and ignorance of the clergy of his day. He was a man of high reputation, very much interested in the church being reformed morally, and to that end he promoted education and scholarship. When Luther's works spread like wildfire across Europe, the world watched intently to see whether Erasmus would throw his support to Luther's cause.

Luther and Erasmus were acquainted with each other before the conflict. A half a year before he posted the ninety-five theses in Wittenberg, Luther wrote in a personal letter:

I am at present reading our Erasmus, but my heart recoils more and more from him. But one thing I admire is, that he constantly and learnedly accuses not only the monks, but the priests, of a lazy, deep-rooted ignorance.

Only, I fear he does not spread Christ and God's grace sufficiently abroad, of which he knows very little. The human is to him of more importance than the divine....

And, in a portent of what was to come, he added, "Those who ascribe something to man's freedom of will regard those things differently from those who know only God's free grace."

Yet Luther coveted the support of Erasmus for his cause, and wrote a flattering letter to Erasmus in 1519, obviously hoping to establish some relationship with the elder scholar. Erasmus' reply to Luther was cordial. He began, "Best greetings, most beloved brother in Christ. Your letter was most welcome to me, displaying a shrewd wit and breathing Christian spirit." However, if Luther was hoping that Erasmus would commit himself to Luther's cause, he would be disappointed. Erasmus stated to Luther that he kept himself "as far as possible neutral, the better to assist the flower of learning."

It would become increasingly evident that Erasmus and Luther were committed to two different, and even antagonistic, causes. The decisive issue would be the doctrine at the heart of the Reformation—the doctrine of sovereign grace. The debate arose in connection with Luther's rejection of a free will in fallen man. Erasmus reacted against that (in 1524) with a work entitled A Diatribe or Discourse on Free Will in which he defended the ability of fallen man to will the good, rejecting Luther's position. Luther's classic work, The Bondage of the Will, was written over against Erasmus. Erasmus, on his part, was furious, and turned against Luther and the Reformation completely.

There is value in examining the arguments that Erasmus used to defend the view of a free will in man. They are relevant because of the fact that The Bondage of the Will was a painstaking refutation of Erasmus' work. Secondly, Erasmus' work is a good representation of the theology of the Romish church against which Luther battled. Thirdly, Erasmus' arguments are significant because they have been pressed into service by Arminians of every stripe and are used even to the present day.

Even the tone of Erasmus' work on the free will of man is one adopted by enemies of sovereign grace throughout history. He wishes to "pursue the matter without recrimination"; he divulges that he has "an inner temperamental horror of fighting." In fact, he does not like to make "assertions" of what is correct, preferring rather that merely a discussion be held on the topic.

Concerning Scripture, Erasmus maintains that "there are some secret places in the Holy Scriptures into which God has not wished us to penetrate more deeply...." In fact, he is convinced that we ought not "through irreverent inquisitiveness rush into those things which are hidden, not to say, superfluous," among which matters is "whether our will accomplishes anything in things pertaining to eternal salvation."

Erasmus uses every trick at his disposal. He avows his own commitment to Scripture, but notes that the real issue is the proper interpretation of Scripture. He condemns Luther by association, putting Luther's views in the same camp as those previously condemned by the church—the heretical Manichaeans and the pre-reformer Wyclif. He calls as witnesses nearly all the ancient church fathers, as well as the medieval scholars, because they had used the term free will. But he fails to distinguish between those fathers who were discussing freedom of choice in things natural (what to wear or eat) versus those who were discussing spiritual choices (to sin or do good). 

His basic arguments for the free will of fallen man will sound very familiar to anyone familiar with the arguments of the enemies of sovereign grace. First, Erasmus insists that the fact that God commands implies that man has the ability to obey the commands. Since God commands men to repent, to turn to Him, man can will to do it. He treats promises that are in a conditional form in the same way. 

Secondly, and related to the above, Erasmus maintains that God is unjust and cruel if He punishes sinners who could not will to love and obey God. So fallen man must have free will. In that connection, he teaches that God's predestination is based on foreknowledge—God foreknew who would rebel and who would obey, and on that basis made His choice.

Thirdly, Erasmus denies that natural man can only do evil. Even the pagans, he avers, do good.

Fourthly, Erasmus maintains the (semi-Pelagian) position that natural man's will is weak, but not powerless. Man's will needs grace to accomplish the good. He distinguishes several kinds of grace supposedly given to man to assist him. According to Erasmus, the reason why Scripture sometimes speaks of the whole work of salvation belonging to God is not to teach that man actually does nothing, but only "to avoid a dangerous arrogance" in man.

Yet perhaps the most important element in Erasmus' apology for free will is that man must merit something with God. Repeatedly he returns to this. He writes, "How is it that we hear so much of reward if there is no such thing as merit?" That was the bedrock on which the whole Romish system was built—man can merit with God. And did Luther know it!

In his conclusion, Erasmus offers a compromise position to Luther. Erasmus is willing to reduce the contribution of man's will to the absolute minimum. He writes:

For in my opinion free choice could be so established as to avoid that confidence in our merits and the other dangers which Luther avoids.... 

On this more accommodating view, it is implied that a man owes all his salvation to divine grace, since the power of free choice is exceedingly trivial in this regard and this very thing which it can do is a work of the grace of God who first created free choice and then freed it and healed it.

So far Pelagius/Erasmus/Arminius.

How, then, did Luther answer this brilliant scholar and defender of free will? In a word, Luther devastated Erasmus' arguments. However, the details of Luther's powerful refutation will have to wait until the next issue.

1. This was written in Latin. A similar, though not identical, defense in German was published in 1521, with the title (translated) The Defense and Explanation of All the Articles of Dr. Martin Luther which were Unjustly Condemned by the Roman Bull. This is available in English in Luther's Works, (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press), vol. 32.

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