Would The Pioneer Reformers Own Modern Protestantism?
I have been enjoying my study of Martin Luther’s life and writings as I prepare for my talk at the Reformation Conference (to be held at Christ Presbyterian Church in Magna on October 28th at 9:30 am). I have spent much of my time in preparation looking at Luther’s magisterial book The Bondage of the Will. In this book, Luther decisively refutes humanist Catholic scholar Desiderius Erasmus and his semi-pelagian, synergistic view of salvation. Erasmus was the most revered scholar in the world, but in the realm of theology, he was no match for Luther. In the words of Michael Reeves, “Erasmus was like an ant attacking a rhino” (61).
One of the most notable aspects of Luther’s work is his unflinching confidence in the clarity of Scripture and his conviction that Christianity is first and foremost a dogmatic religion. For Luther, the issue of man’s enslavement to sin and total inability to do anything to save himself was not a doctrine to be chalked up to the realm of uncertainty. He rightly recognized that Erasmus’ synergism undermined the grace of God revealed in the gospel and robbed Christ of His glory.
In his introductory essay to The Bondage of the Will, J. I. Packer challenges modern day protestant churches to hear Luther afresh. His words are powerful and more urgent than ever:
These things need to be pondered by Protestants to-day. With what right may we call ourselves children of the Reformation? Much modern Protestantism would be neither owned nor even recognised by the pioneer Reformers. The Bondage of the Will fairly sets before us what they believed about the salvation of lost mankind. In the light of it, we are forced to ask whether Protestant Christendom has not tragically sold its birthright between Luther’s day and our own. Has not Protestantism to-day become more Erasmian than Lutheran? Do we not too often try to minimise and gloss over doctrinal differences for the sake of inter-party peace? Are we innocent of the doctrinal indifferentism with which Luther charged Erasmus? Do we still believe that doctrine matters? Or do we now, with Erasmus, rate a deceptive appearance of unity as of more importance than truth? Have we not grown used to an Erasmian brand of teaching from our pulpits—a message that rests on the same shallow synergistic conceptions which Luther refuted, picturing God and man approaching each other almost on equal terms, each having his own contribution to make to man’s salvation and each depending on the dutiful co-operation of the other for the attainment of that end?—as if God exists for man’s convenience, rather than man for God’s glory? Is it not true, conversely, that it is rare to-day to hear proclaimed the diagnosis of our predicament which Luther—and Scripture—put forward: that man is hopeless and helpless in sin, fast bound in Satan’s slavery, at enmity with God, blind and dead to the things of the Spirit? And hence, how rarely do we hear faith spoken of as Scripture depicts it—as it is expressed in the cry of self-committal with which the contrite heart, humbled to see its need and made conscious of its own utter helplessness even to trust, casts itself in the God-given confidence of self-despair upon the mercy of Christ Jesus—’Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief!’ Can we deny the essential rightness of Luther’s exegesis of the texts? And if not, dare we ignore the implications of his exposition? To accept the principles which Martin Luther vindicates in The Bondage of the Will would certainly involve a mental and spiritual revolution for many Christians at the present time. It would involve a radically different approach to preaching and the practice of evangelism, and to most other departments of theology and pastoral work as well. God-centered thinking is out of fashion to-day, and its recovery will involve something of a Copernican revolution in our outlook on many matters. But ought we to shrink from this? Do we not stand in urgent need of such teaching as Luther here gives us—teaching which humbles man, strengthens faith, and glorifies God—and is not the contemporary Church weak for the lack of it? The issue is clear. We are compelled to ask ourselves: If the Almighty God of the Bible is to be our God, if the New Testament gospel is to be our message, if Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, to-day and forever—is any other position than Luther’s possible? Are we not in all honesty bound to stand with him in ascribing all might, and majesty, and dominion, and power, and all the glory of our salvation to God alone? Surely no more important or far-reaching question confronts the Church to-day.
Sola fide Sola gratia SOLI DEO GLORIA