Ascent theology

Useful and broadly applicable paradigms from Pastor Matt Richard:

During the time of Martin Luther there were theological presuppositions that had been ingrained in the lives, thoughts and actions of the people. For the sake of simplicity, two things summarized the theological culture and attitudes of the day: ascent theology and the theology of active righteousness.

It was commonly held from medieval teachings that mankind needed to ascend to God. It was taught that one needed to climb a metaphoric ladder towards a Holy and Righteous God through: pious good works, devotion to God, accomplishments, indulgences, holy living, penance, religious duties, etc… Eugene Klug comments on this saying,

“Ascetics (i.e. those trying to climb to God) desired to achieve more and greater conformity with the will of the holy God, climbing rung by rung the ladder of God-pleasing acceptance before the throne of the loving Lord and Savior.” (Note: Parentheses added)

People during the time of Luther saw themselves in a spiritual journey that required strenuous effort and endurance to elevate ‘self’ to the same level of God.

In ascent theology the emphasis is placed on mankind and the strategic goal becomes mankind’s climbing pursuit of God. As a result, man does not need a descending Christ; which means that Jesus becomes a simple model of holiness that needs to be emulated in the ascending journey. Consequently, how does one know if he/she has ascended enough? What are the best methods to ascend to God? What methods get the best bang for the buck?

The other presupposition that was commonly held during the time of Luther was the theology of active righteousness. Active righteousness simply taught that if one were to be considered righteous that he/she needed to achieve righteousness by the way of the Law and effort. For example: the Law says, “Do” and the person actively “Does it” which results in a presumed “Righteousness.”

The teaching of active righteousness goes right in line and is in harmony with ascent theology. Both put the emphasis on mankind’s efforts. Both have a starting point of mankind. Both appeal to the flesh. Both undercut the centrality of the work of God in Christ. . . .

According to some historians, the Heidelberg Disputation is considered as more important to the 16th century reformation than the 95 theses of 1517. The reason being, the teachings of the Heidelberg Theses adamantly argue against ascent theology and active righteousness and shows forth from scripture a completely contrary and opposite way of seeing the Christian life: descent theology and passive righteousness.

The theology of descent puts the emphasis on Christ and His strategic goal of drawing close to and pursuing mankind. As a result, man does not (and cannot) ascend to God; which means that Jesus is the one who descends to mankind as to rescues and bring sinners home to God. Consequently, one is granted confident assurance as scripture continually reveals the glory of the descending Christ to a bloody cross to completely atone for mankind, us!

The teaching of passive righteousness taught by Luther and the scriptures puts the focus on what Christ has accomplished on behalf of mankind. Passive righteousness simply teaches that if one is to be considered righteous that he/she needs to receive this righteousness by the way of the Gospel and Gift. The Gospel says, “Believe This And Receive It As Gift” because “Everything Is Already Done For You.” (Note Theses 26 of the Heidelberg Disputation)

via Steadfast Lutherans » The Laying Of Our Foundation: The Theological Framework Of The Reformation For The Church Today.

Happy Augsburg Confession Day!

On this day 482 years ago–June 25, 1530–the Reformation princes and free cities confessed their faith before Emperor Charles V at the Diet (the governing assembly of the Imperial states) held in Augsburg, Germany.  The 28 articles drawn up by Philipp Melanchthon (not Luther!) became known as the Augsburg Confession.  It was the first confession of faith of the Reformation and, to this day, it is perhaps the most succinct and definitive summaries of Lutheran theology.

Part of its genius is that it spells out what did NOT change in the Reformation churches–the continuity with historical Christianity that later protestants would throw out–as well as precisely what elements in the medieval church did need to be reformed.  The Augsburg Confession is still startlingly relevant to today’s controversies of theology and practice.

Honor the day by reading it:  Augsburg Confession – Book of Concord.

Southern Baptists cracking down on Calvinism

So what’s this about Southern Baptists cracking down on the Calvinists in their midst?

See As Baptists Prepare to Meet, Calvinism Debate Shifts to Heresy Accusation | Christianity Today.

Do Lutherans have a dog in this fight?

The Law in the life of Christians

As promised yesterday, here is Jono Linebaugh discussing the role of the Law in the life of someone who has faith in the Gospel of Christ.  I know the Third Use of the Law is a big controversy in Lutheranism.  Paul McCain, for example, has been warning Lutherans–including some theologians  in the ELCA–of forgetting that Christians are, indeed, obliged to follow God’s Law.  Dr. Linebaugh, a professor at Knox Theological Seminary (a Reformed institution)  here seems to be downplaying the Third Use as it is often understood in Luther, but I think he is mainly fighting the Calvinist understanding and that he is restoring a properly Lutheran understanding of the Law in the life of Christians.  But, hey, I’m no pastor or theologian.  Let me ask those of you who are:  Does this account properly explain the use of the Law in the life of the Christian? What is the difference between the Reformed and the Lutheran understanding of this issue?  When they both use the same term (“Third Use of the Law”) are they meaning the same thing?

For Luther, it is within this unconditional context created by the gospel, the reality he called “living by faith,” that the Law understood as God’s good commands can be returned to its proper place. Freed from the burden and bondage of attempting to use the Law to establish our righteousness before God, Christians are free to look to commandments, not as conditions, but as descriptions and directions as they seek to serve their neighbor. In other words, once a person is liberated from the commonsense delusion that acting righteously makes us righteous before God, and in faith believes the counterintuitive reality that being made righteous by God’s forgiving and resurrecting word precedes and produces righteous action, then the justified person is unlocked to love.

For this reason, Luther would insist that the Law only applies to the second question of Christian living: what shall we do? It helps to answer the “what” question, the question about the content of good works. The Law, however, does not answer the more basic question, the question far too few people ask: How do good works occur? What fuels works of love? While the Law demands and directs, what delivers and drives? For Luther, the answer to this question always follows the pattern of 1 John 4.19: “We love because he first loved us.” Works of love flow from and follow prior belovedness. Thus, as Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer has said, the essential question of theological ethics is this: “What has been given?” The answer: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8). . . .

Recognizing this distinction between the conditional and condemning function of the Law and the descriptive and directive statement of God’s will addressed to the unconditional context of faith in the God who justifies the ungodly is essential for understanding the purpose and place of New Testament imperatives, not to mention the Ten Commandments. The proper pattern is always “in view of God’s mercies…” (Rom 12.1), or as Luther pointed out with respect to the Decalogue, the pattern is the opening promise: “I am the Lord your God…” (Exod 20.2). In other words, the ears of faith are free to hear a commandment without a condition because the Christian conscience listens not to the condition and curse of the Law, but to the Christ in whom there is no condemnation (Rom 8.1).

This is why, for Luther, the phrase “the third use of the Law” (i.e. a use of the Law after the gospel and thus unique to Christians) is a category mistake. For him, as suggested above, Law names the divine speech that accuses and kills. Cut off from its conditionality and kicked out of the Christian’s conscience, a commandment is not Law in the theological sense. This does not mean that Luther didn’t think those portions of scripture that we think of as Law should be preached to Christians; he emphatically did (as his disputations against the Antinomians and his expositions of the Ten Commandments in the Catechisms demonstrate). But it does mean that “Law” is a slightly misleading term in this context because Law, for Luther, is defined by its “chief and proper use” which is “to reveal sin” and function as a “Hercules to attack and subdue the monster” of self-righteousness (Galatians 1535). Defined this way, Law only applies to the Christian insofar as they are still sinful. (For Luther, a third use of the Law – a phrase his younger colleague Melanchthon coined in 1534 and which Luther never adopted – can only mean that the first two uses [ordering creation and accusing sinners] still apply to the Christian because while they are righteous they are simultaneously sinful).  Insofar as the Christian is justified by faith, however, the Law has ended – and precisely because the Law has ended as a voice of condemnation, because it has been divested of its saving significance, a commandment can be heard by the ears of faith without a condition. Passive and receptive before God, the justified person is free to be active and giving toward the neighbor.

The end of the Law (Rom 10.4), understood by Luther as Christ kicking the Law out of the conscience and rejecting its role as the regulator of the divine-human relationship, is thus the end of the “ifs” that interpose themselves between God and his creatures. In place of the “ifs” Christ has uttered a final cry: “It is finished.” These three words are the unconditional guarantee of the three words God speaks to sinners in the Gospel: “I love you.” In this unconditional context the justified person is freed from the inhuman quest to secure a standing before God and freed for the human task of serving one’s neighbor. In Luther’s memorable words: “A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (Freedom of a Christian 1520).

via LIBERATE » Luther on the Law.

HT:  Daniel Siedell

A key named “Promise”

Matthew Block, editor of the Canadian Lutheran, makes good use of classic literature to demonstrate how despair is countered by the promises of God:

In the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a spiritual epidemic spread across England, infecting Christians with the belief that God would not forgive them. They desperately wanted to be saved, but they believed they had been shut out from grace. This condition—”despair,” as it was called—robbed people of hope and drove many to commit suicide.

You see people wrestling with this issue in the literature of the day—in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the religious poetry of the Anglican priest and poet John Donne, for example. But perhaps we see it most clearly in John Bunyan’s classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. Here the character Christian is taken prisoner by Giant Despair, thrown into a dungeon, beaten daily, and goaded to take his own life—something he would, in fact, do if his friend Hopeful wasn’t there to keep him from self-harm.

This last tale is particularly moving because we know Bunyan himself struggled with despair. In his spiritual autobiography, he writes how, for two years, he suffered under the belief his sins were unforgivable. The Scriptures offered no relief; all he read was God’s anger at and condemnation of sin. For two years, Bunyan perceived nothing but “damnation, and expectation of damnation.”

But of course, John Bunyan did not stay forever in despair. The cure finally came when he learned to distinguish Law from Gospel. Bunyan learned at least some of this from Martin Luther himself, whose Commentary on Galatians happened to come into his hands. It was, Bunyan says, “most fit for a wounded conscience”—most fit, that is, for a conscience down in despair. So taken by the book was he that Bunyan would later say he counted it second only to the Scriptures themselves.

What Luther taught and what Bunyan had come to believe was that the Gospel offers the only answer to the accusations of the Law. Yes, the Law shows us our sin. Yes, we must accept the testimony of Scripture that we are sinful people deserving death and hell. But the Gospel, not the Law, gets the final word. The Good News is that Christ bore our sins on the cross. His death and resurrection set us free from the guilt of sin!

It was this Gospel that finally won Bunyan from despair. The Gospel prodded constantly at his heart, calming his fears. He recalls: “Scripture, in these flying fits would call as running after me, ‘I have blotted out as a thick cloud thy transgressions, and as a cloud thy sins. Return unto me for I have redeemed thee’ (Isaiah 44:22).”

Bunyan could find no cure for despair in himself. No, the cure could only be found in the promises of Christ—in the Gospel. And so it is that, in The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian only escapes Giant Despair when he remembers he carries a key in his bosom. The key’s name is “Promise,” and it opens the prison doors.

Despair was not Bunyan’s problem alone. It existed long before Bunyan, and it continues to plague people long since. We see glimpses of it in ourselves when we worry that we have finally sinned too much. When we fear our faith is not strong enough to save. When we’ve let God down one too many times. But just as it did with Bunyan, Scripture comes running after us in these moments, reminding us of the promises of Christ. The Holy Spirit is at work in the Word, drawing us ever to Himself, opening our hearts to believe the promises of God.

via Canadian Lutheran Online » Blog Archive » A key named “Promise”.

Rev. Block goes on to explain how the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper can help people out of the despair that comes from thinking their sins are unforgivable.

Notice:  John Bunyan was a Baptist who was helped by Luther.

Luther the detective: Vocation

There is a TV show on BBC called Luther about a British police investigator, a black man played by Idris Elba.  According to Jordan Ballor, Luther is also Lutheran, a dramatic exploration of vocation and what it means to be a little Christ to your neighbor.

I haven’t seen the show, but I’ve got to now.  Ballor’s essay is worth two blog posts.  First, I appreciate his explanation of vocation, along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s application.  I’ll post that today.  Tomorrow I’ll post some of what he says about the TV show.

The reformer Martin Luther is justly famous for his doctrine of vocation, or calling, and its implications for the Christian life. Luther understood vocation as a Christian’s place of responsibility before God and for others in the world. One of the critical aspects of Luther’s view of vocation was that we represent God to others in our service to them. He said that Christians act as masks or “coverings” of God (larvae Dei), the visual and physical representations of God’s action on earth. In some real and deep sense, the hands of Christians serving others are the hands of God. Even non-Christians, in their roles in the social order, can be said to represent God’s preserving action in the world.

Luther also understood the ambiguity inherent in any action undertaken in a fallen world. His doctrine of justification made it clear that on no account might humans presume to stand before God with a presumption of innocence or merit based on their own works. No matter how faithfully a Christian might work, or what good things a Christian might seek to do, none of this can justify us before God’s righteous judgment. Our justification in this sense depends solely on the righteousness imputed to us on the basis of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. . . .

The Lutheran theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer takes this Lutheran understanding of vocation and radicalizes it in his doctrine of “vicarious representative action” (Stellvertretung). In Bonoheffer’s view, we act as representatives of God to one another precisely in our ability to take on, in a limited and provisional way, the guilt of others. For Bonhoeffer this action means that we live “for others,” just as Christ lived, died, and was raised “for us.” As Robin Lovin puts it, “Responsible action is a true imitation of Christ, a willingness to be despised and abused for the sake of those who have themselves been despised.” This idea of vicarious representative action, of living for others in a deeply sacrificial way, is what animates the life and work of DCI John Luther.

via Get Your Hands Dirty: The Vocational Theology of Luther | Comment Magazine | Cardus.


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