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Tuesday
Jun112013

Understanding the Gospel III

We are so far removed from the events of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s that it has become increasingly more common to find people who think of it as “much to do about nothing.”  Were the events of that era simply over-reactions to the definitions of words?  I think that when you make an honest investigation into the debates and events of that period you will find that there are and still remain very big differences.

Real Differences

I will only point out two very big differences, but they should suffice to demonstrate that the answer is not just to pretend like they are not important.  First, the reformers called the Church back to the Scriptures; “sola scriptura” (only scripture) was their motto.  Over the years extra teachings and Church practices had been added to the point that much of what was taught and done was at least extra-biblical and in some cases even unbiblical.  But even deeper than this, the Gospel itself was being turned on its head.  The reformers wanted the Church to go back to the Scriptures and simply teach and be what the Scriptures promoted.  They were rejected, branded heretics, and punished wherever possible.  Thus the Protestant groups were formed.

Let’s look at the teaching of purgatory.  It cannot be supported from the Bible.  However, it was reasoned from Jewish writings that were not Scripture, and from further twisting biblical texts from their obvious meaning.  Why would such a belief that was not accepted from the beginning become acceptable later?  Over time a mentality had been developed that the work of Jesus is not enough for our salvation.  His death on the cross for our sins was not enough suffering.  To truly be clean enough to enter the presence of the Father would require a time of “purging” in a place of punishment.  Each individual would remain in purgatory for various amounts of time until they had paid for their sins.  Clearly no godly person would claim to be perfect in their following of Christ and so it was easy for people to fall into the trap of accepting such a teaching.  However, a people who need to pay for their sins become a people who are easier to control, manipulate, and subdue.

Another teaching called Indulgences goes along with the concept of purgatory.  The Pope could dispense special indulgences by which an individual could reduce their time in purgatory through prayer, extra devotion, and even financial giving.  Thus in Luther’s day indulgences had become so bad that a Dominican Preacher had coined the phrase, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”  Though this wasn’t exactly what the Church was teaching, it demonstrates the effect this doctrine was having upon the clergy and the laity.  When my giving, or devotions can release me, or even another, from years of purgatory, I have a vested interest in doing far more than I would if no such place existed.  At the heart of these teachings is the idea that somehow a person needs to pay for their sins.  This diminishing of the work of Christ and exaltation of the work of man is core to the gospel and, in fact, can affect one’s salvation.

Jesus had come to be viewed like this.  He had purchased a vast, unlimited treasury of grace over which he had put the Church leadership in charge.  This had the effect of placing a mediator between believers and Christ.  Yet, Scripture teaches us to personally come to the Throne of God for Grace and that Jesus Christ is our mediator before the Father.  Who ever heard of a mediator for a mediator?  This redundancy is not only illogical, it was damaging to the spiritual life of many.  Hebrews 4:16, says” Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in the time of need.”  Even if leaders sit on earthly thrones that have been made for them, that is not the throne this verse refers to.  Also, in Hebrews 10:19-22 we have, “Therefore, brethern, having boldness to enter the Holiest Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”  Jesus is the High Priest to which we are to draw near with a heart full of assurance and faith.  This is what makes for our cleansing and salvation before the Father. 

These very real differences are still active today.  Neither group has changed their views on these issues, though some may redefine their importance.  With this in mind let’s go to James 2:14.

What is Saving Faith

In verse 14 James speaks to a person who posits the theoretical position that they have faith in Jesus but do no personal works.  James asks, “Can such a faith save him?”  The rhetorical answer is no.  However, notice that James recognized that the word faith was not a special word that could mean anything to anybody and still retain its power.

Now Paul had made it very clear in his letters that our works cannot save us.  Ephesians 2:8,9 says, “it is by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves.  It is the gift of God not by works lets any man should boast.”  Thus man can only be made clean before God by the grace that comes through putting our faith in Jesus Christ and His work.  We can only approach God through the works of Jesus and Him alone.  Our reliance and trust upon Christ and Him alone are an essential part of a faith that has the power to save.  This involves recognizing our own sin and thus need for Christ’s work of atonement (covering it).  It also involves accepting not just what Jesus taught about the Gospel, but also about himself.  He is the Son of God, born of miraculous birth, lived a sinless life, died a substitutionary death, was powerfully resurrected, exalted to the throne of God, and given Kingship over all the earth.

In this context James goes on in verses 15-17 to point out that if we truly have faith in Jesus how could we not love each other as he did?  In reality he is not promoting the idea that our works are essential to salvation, but that they are a part of the equation of the Christian life.  So what part do they play?

The Relation Between Faith, Works, and Salvation

Salvation here is the immediate spiritual work of becoming a child of God who stands to inherit all the promises of God that are still future.  This is also referred to as justification.  It is the point at which God declares that our sin has been dealt with and we now stand worthy to receive his adoption and inheritance along with Jesus.

In simplified form, the formula for salvation according to the Roman Catholic Church looks somewhat like this:  Faith in Jesus + Personal works (mediated by the Church Leadership) = Salvation.  The Protestant position refused to put our works on the same side of the equation as Jesus.  Thus the modified or biblical formula is this: Faith in Jesus and His work = salvation + Good works as a part of His Church.  Notice that our works in the second equation do not help our salvation, but rather are a result of our salvation.  This is huge, because the Bible has many harsh judgments against those who think they can approach God by their own works.  Yet, it is clear that we need to pursue good works as a believer in Jesus.

Final Thoughts

God is not the author of disunity.  But neither is He the author of the traditions and “additions” of men to the Gospel, whether they be Roman Catholic or Protestant errors.  Unity must always be around Christ himself and his word, rather than on the rationale and position of any man or group of men.

Understanding Gospel III audio