October 31, 1517 & October 31, 2012 (495 years Later)
Anyone who follows this blog regularly already knows that I have been diagnosed with cancer. I begin my treatment today – 4-5 hours of chemotherapy and 24 minutes of Radiation. I will have 33 straight treatments with the hopes that my cancer will be killed.
I don’t believe it’s by coincidence or an accident that my chemotherapy and radiation treatment begin on October 31st – the day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the Church Door at Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s 95 Theses sparked perhaps one of the five most significant days in Church history since the closing of the Canon of Scripture on any church historian’s list of significant days.
I want to make a few observations before I leave for the hospital for treatment today:
(1) I am grateful for truth and those who fight for it – no matter what the cost. When you get cancer you start hearing stories of courageous people of all ages who have battled and overcome cancer; and on the other hand, there are many who were courageous and have lost the battle. Honestly, I’ve never been so inspired by others in a battle for anything. When death is on the line – anything cancer survivors have to say, is like E.F. Hutton speaking to me – when they talk I listen (1980’s television commercial “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen”). I am grateful that Martin Luther did not recant of his teaching of justification by faith in Christ Jesus. There is no greater comfort I have than my security and peace with God the Father through His Son – Jesus Christ. I know that whether I live or die – that I’m justified before God the Father because of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ my Savior and Lord. I am so grateful for the promise of Jesus related to Him being the pinnacle of truth when He declares to Thomas and the disciples in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”
(2) I thank God for what theologians call “common grace.” Two of the people that have helped me the most since I’ve been diagnosed with cancer are not followers of Christ. And yet, I am so grateful for their advice, wisdom, and compassion in my battle with cancer and all the medical procedures I’ve had to go endure so far. I am grateful for doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and others who have come alongside me with an expertise in their particular areas in treating cancer. It is a common grace that all truth is God’s truth. The rain falls on the wicked farmer’s and righteous farmer’s crops alike. I am reminded that all people are made in God’s image and though they may not share my passion for Christ and God’s Word – they are special and many share an affinity for objective truth’s and helping their fellow man. Luther was helped by many who were not followers of Christ in helping bring about the Reformation of the church and the Gospel. In the Bible God uses men as wicked as Judas to bring about His purposes.
(3) I am grateful for God’s sovereignty. I know that nothing can happen to me that He does not allow. R.C. Sproul likes to say there is not one single maverick molecule that is not under God’s control. I believe that God can kill my cancer without chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Many family members, and friends, and even Christians I don’t even know, in different parts of the world are praying for me. I feel totally humbled by this outpouring of love. Elders, my mom, and several close friends have anointed me with oil. However, the cancer is still there. As of today I still have cancer that needs to be killed through the means of God’s people praying, medications, radiation and chemotherapy treatment, and the various nutritional cancerous killing foods I’ve been eating and drinking. However, no matter what happens I know that God is sovereign – in control of everything (including my cancer), and that He is good – He will be glorified no matter what becomes of my cancer. Luther was not perfect – as a matter of fact that’s why he was so passionate about the Bible. In God’s sovereignty He raised up a brilliant and yet very bombastic theologian to shake things up in the Church. I don’t claim to be brilliant, nor too bombastic, but I do know that God will bring about good and the glorification of His Son on a much smaller scale in sovereignly using my cancer for His ultimate purposes and plans – and that is extremely comforting. The fact that no one, no thing, no ruler, no nation, no disease – can thwart the sovereign plan of God to bring glory to Himself.
(4) Luther said that suffering helped him understand the Bible, and that without experiencing pain and suffering you can’t be a good theologian. I strive hard to be a good interpreter and teacher, but I totally concur with Luther – suffering makes you a much better theologian. I don’t like suffering or pain any more than anyone else. But I think that the emotional pain that led to physical pain for the advancement of the gospel in Luther’s life was worth it. It was worth it for me, and worth it for you. I’m so glad that I know salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone because Luther’s heritage has been passed down for almost 500 years. Before him it was taught by all of the apostles in the New Testament. It is extremely clear. But nothing good, comes easy, or without a cost. We have the phrase in America – “No pain, no gain.” Without Christ’s suffering and pain on the cross there would be no spiritual gain in any way, shape, or form in our standing with God. I stand amazed at Jesus’ voluntarily leaving His rightful place with the Father and Spirit to come to planet earth to pay the ultimate price and be the one and only sacrifice for our sin. He is able to empathize with our sufferings and weaknesses, and is yet without sin.
Today I stand as Luther did on the truth of justification by faith alone in Jesus; in God’s common grace through the expertise of the doctors and nurses and the medications they will use to kill my cancer; in the sovereign will of God working all things together for my good and His glory; and I’m prepared to suffer because in Christ I know that His sufferings were greater still and for a greater good; no matter what happens – as Luther was able to say “Here I Stand” – I can also stand firmly today 495 years later because of Jesus the Nazarene.
The song below will be going through my mind during radiation and chemotherapy treatment today. It summarizes everything that Luther stood for on October 31, 1517. It is a song that talks about going from darkness to light; sinner to saint; from totally condemned because of my sin to fully redeemed by His righteousness. Why? Because of the amazing plan of the Father to send His Son – the Perfect for the imperfect; the Clean for the unclean; the obedient sacrificial Lamb for the rebellious goat. I hope and pray that the chemotherapy and radiation will do for me in a physical sense what Christ has done for me in a spiritual sense. I pray the cancer will be wiped away as Jesus has washed away all of my sin. Here is the song written by Charles H. Gabriel that summarizes these truths of the Reformation:
“I Stand Amazed in the Presence”
I stand amazed in the presence
Of Jesus the Nazarene,
And wonder how he could love me,
A sinner, condemned, unclean.
How marvelous! How wonderful!
And my song shall ever be:
How marvelous! How wonderful
Is my Savior’s love for me!
For me it was in the garden
he prayed: “Not my will, but thine.”
He had no tears for own griefs,
But sweat-drops of blood for mine.
In pity angels beheld him,
and came from the world of light
to comfort him in the sorrows
he bore for my soul that night.
He took my sins and my sorrows,
he made them his very own;
he bore the burden to Calvary,
and suffered and died alone.
When with the ransomed in glory
his face I at last shall see,
‘twill be my joy through the ages to sing of his love for me.
Why let the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he wishes. – Psalm 115:2-3
I’m told that after an earthquake in California a group of ministers met for a prayer breakfast. As they discussed impassable expressways and ruined buildings, they agreed that God had very little to do with the disaster. They concluded that since the earth is under the Curse from Creation, earthquakes and other natural disasters simply happen according to laws of nature. But even after they made that conclusion, one of the ministers closed in prayer, thanking God for the timing of the earthquake that came at five o’clock in the morning when there were fewer people out on the roads.
So did God have anything to do with that earthquake or didn’t He? How can a person conclude that God is not involved and then thank Him for His involvement? It can’t be both ways.
Hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes. Our earth is not immune to disasters. So how does God fit in? Intuitively, people know God is in charge. When tragedy strikes, people call out to Him. We know that when something is outside of our control, we need to call upon a higher power for help. But if people intuitively know that God is in charge, how do we explain the heart-wrenching suffering that accompanies such disasters?
Who Is Responsible?
There’s no doubt about it—natural disasters aren’t very good for God’s reputation. As a result, many Christians try to absolve Him of any and all responsibility for these horrific events. They want to “get Him off the hook” in order to help Him maintain His loving image. Some do this by saying that God is weak—He can’t really stop these disasters from happening, but He will work really hard to bring something good out of them. Others try to give the devil all the blame, saying God is not involved at all in any of the bad things that happen—He’s just a bystander.
Is God Weak?
Let’s begin with people who try to protect God’s reputation by claiming that He is unable to prevent our planet from getting pounded by one calamity after another. These folks fear that if we say God is responsible for natural disasters or that He allows them because of a higher purpose, we will drive people away from the Christian faith. “Why would people want to come to a God who would do such horrible things?” they ask. When we glibly say that “God will bring good out of it” or that “in the end we win,” it does little to comfort those who have lost loved ones or possessions in a disaster.
I agree that glib statements about suffering being part of God’s plan will not immediately comfort the grieving. In fact, it probably is true that giving such answers without any compassion or understanding could indeed drive people away from God rather than toward Him. As Christians, we do need to be very careful what we say to those who are grieving from great loss. Sometimes it is best to remain silent, not pretending that we have the right to speak on God’s behalf, but to act benevolently on His behalf instead. I will talk more about this later in this chapter.
To take the approach that God is weak, unable to handle the forces of nature, is to believe that God is finite. If it is true that God is not all-powerful and must deal with natural disasters as best as He can after they happen, how can a God like that be trusted? If God is helpless in the face of a hurricane, how confident can we be that He can one day subdue all evil? To believe that God is finite might get Him off the hook for natural disasters, but it also puts end-time victories in jeopardy. The Bible does not describe a weak God, however. In fact, just the opposite. God is omnipotent—all-powerful. Consider just a sampling of Scripture that focuses on God’s power over His creation:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. – Genesis 1:1
You formed the mountains by your power and armed yourself with mighty strength. You quieted the raging oceans with their pounding waves and silenced the shouting of the nations. – Psalm 65:6-7
The heavens are yours, and the earth is yours; everything in the world is yours—you created it all. You created north and south. Mount Tabor and Mount Hermon praise your name. Powerful is your arm! Strong is your hand! Your right hand is lifted high in glorious strength. – Psalm 89:11-13
Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. – Isaiah 40:26
[Jesus] got up and rebuked the wind and waves, and suddenly there was a great calm. – Matthew 8:26
For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. – Romans 1:20
It would be strange indeed if the God who created the world were unable to control it. To describe God as too weak to handle natural disasters doesn’t help God’s reputation, it doesn’t get Him off the hook, and it isn’t biblical. The answer to the question, “Is God weak?” is a resounding no! God is all-powerful and completely able to control nature.
Are Disasters the Devil’s Fault?
The second way some Christians try to exempt God from involvement in natural disasters is to simply blame everything on the devil. God is not responsible for what happens, they say. He created the world and lets it run; nature is fallen, and Satan, who is the god of this world, wreaks havoc with the natural order.
Scripture clearly tells us that nature is under a curse just as people are: “The ground is cursed because of you. All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it” (Genesis 3:17). It follows, then, that Satan might indeed be involved in natural disasters. We have an example of this in the book of Job, when God gave Satan the power to destroy Job’s children. Acting under God’s direction and within certain set limitations, Satan used lightning to kill the sheep and the servants and a powerful wind to kill all ten of Job’s children (Job 1). Clearly the devil takes great pleasure in causing havoc and destruction. Take a moment to look at the wretched life of the demon-possessed man before Jesus commanded the legion of demons to leave him. The Gospel of Luke describes him as homeless and naked, living in a cemetery, shrieking, breaking chains and shackles, completely alone, and without hope (Luke 8:26-29). This is a snapshot of Satan’s ultimate goal for living things. Here is proof, if proof is needed, that satanic powers might indeed be connected to the natural disasters that afflict our planet.
So if the devil is involved, does this mean that God is removed from Does He really have a “hands-off policy” when it comes to disasters? Does this absolve God of responsibility? Is it all the devil’s fault? Clearly the answer to all of these questions is no. God has not relegated calamities to His hapless archrival the devil without maintaining strict supervision and ultimate control of nature. No earthquake comes, no tornado rages, and no tsunami washes villages away but that God signs
off on it.
But that conclusion creates its own set of questions…
So What Does It Mean That God Is in Control?
If God isn’t too weak to deal with His creation, and if we cannot put all the blame on Satan, then where does that leave us? It leaves us with the fact that God is all-powerful and in control—and that applies to natural disasters. We must think carefully at this point.
We must distinguish between the secondary cause of disastrous events and their ultimate cause. The secondary cause of the lightning and the wind that killed Job’s children was the power of Satan. But follow carefully: it was God who gave Satan the power to wreak the havoc. It was God who set the limits of what Satan could or could not do. In effect, God said, “Satan, you can go this far, no further. I’m setting the boundaries here.” That’s why Job, quite rightly, did not say that the death of his children was the devil’s doing. Instead, Job said, “The LORD gave me what I had, and the LORD has taken it away. Praise the name of the LORD!” (Job 1:21).
Scientifically speaking, we know that the secondary cause of an earthquake is due to a fault beneath the earth’s crust; the top of the earth’s crust moves in one direction while the levels under the earth’s crust gradually move in the opposite direction. The secondary causes of a tornado are unstable atmospheric conditions combined with warm, moist air. The secondary cause of a hurricane is a large air mass heated and fueled by the warmth of the ocean. All of these weather patterns might or might not receive their momentum from Satan, yet we can be sure that the ultimate cause of these events is God. He rules through intermediate causes and at times by direct intervention, but either way, He is in charge. After all, He is the Creator, the Sustainer, of all things. We sing with Isaac Watts,
There’s not a plant or flower below,
But makes Thy glories known;
And clouds arise, and tempests blow,
By order from Thy throne.
So what does it mean for us that God is in control, even when natural disasters occur? How do we begin to process this?
First, many theologians who agree that God is in charge of nature emphasize that God does not decree natural disasters but only permits them to happen. Understanding the difference between these words is helpful, especially since in the book of Job God permitted Satan to bring about disasters to test Job. However, keep in mind that the God who permits natural disasters to happen could choose to not permit them to happen. In the very act of allowing them, He demonstrates that they fall within the boundaries of His providence and will. The devil is not allowed to act beyond the boundaries God sets.
Second—and this is important—God is sometimes pictured as being in control of nature even without secondary or natural causes. When the disciples were at their wits’ end, expecting to drown in a stormy sea, Christ woke up from a nap and said to the waves, “Silence! Be still!” The effect was immediate: “Suddenly the wind stopped, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39). Christ could have spoken similar words to the tidal wave in Papua New Guinea or the rain that triggered the mudslides in Venezuela, and they would have obeyed Him. At the word of Christ, the tsunami in Southeast Asia would have ended before it hit the coastlines. Notice how the Scriptures credit tidal waves and tsunamis to God: “The LORD’s home reaches up to the heavens, while its foundation is on the earth. He draws up water from the oceans and pours it down as rain on the land. The LORD is his name!” (Amos 9:6).
Third, if the heavens declare the glory of God, if it is true that the Lord reveals His character through the positive side of nature, doesn’t it make sense that the calamities of nature also reveal something about Him too? If nature is to give us a balanced picture of God, we must see His judgment, too. “The LORD does whatever pleases him throughout all heaven and earth, and on the seas and in their depths. He causes the clouds to rise over the whole earth. He sends the lightning with the rain and releases the wind from his storehouses” (Psalm 135:6-7).
After the tsunami in Southeast Asia, a supposed Christian cleric was asked whether God had anything to do with the disaster. “No,” he replied. “The question as to why it happened demands a geological answer, not a theological answer.” Is he reading the same Bible I am? Or has he read the Bible and simply chosen not to believe it?
Who sent the Flood during the time of Noah? God said, “I am about to cover the earth with a flood that will destroy every living thing that breathes. Everything on earth will die” (Genesis 6:17).
God determined the timing, the duration, and the intensity of the rain. And it happened according to His word. It would have been difficult to convince Noah that God had nothing to do with the weather, that all He could do was weep when the Flood came.
Who sent the plagues on Egypt? Who caused the sun to stand still so that Joshua could win a battle? Who first sealed the heavens and then brought rain in response to Elijah’s prayer? Who sent the earthquake when the sons of Korah rebelled against Moses? This event recorded in the Bible is of special interest:
[Moses] had hardly finished speaking the words when the ground suddenly split open beneath them. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed the men, along with their households and all their followers who were standing with them, and everything they owned. So they went down alive into the grave, along with all their belongings. The earth closed over them, and they all vanished from among the people of Israel (Numbers 16:31-33).
Can anyone say that God is not the ultimate cause of these disasters? In the story of Jonah, the biblical writer leaves no doubt as to who caused the storm that forced the sailors to throw the stowaway overboard. “The LORD hurled a powerful wind over the sea, causing a violent storm that threatened to break the ship apart” (Jonah 1:4, italics added). The sailors agonized about unloading their unwanted cargo, but we read that they “picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once!” (Jonah 1:15). It appears that the Bible is not as concerned about God’s reputation as some theologians are. It puts God clearly in charge of the wind, the rain, and the calamities of the earth.
What do all these stories have in common? Notice that God is meticulously involved. Whether an earthquake, a raging wind, or a rainstorm, the events came and left according to God’s word. In addition, many of these calamities were acts of judgment by which God expressed how much He hated disobedience. In Old Testament times, these judgments generally separated godly people from wicked people (this is not the case today, as we shall see in the next chapter). However, even back then, sometimes the godly were also victims of these judgments. Job’s children were killed not because they were wicked, but because God wanted to test their father.
On the other hand, we should also note that in both the Old and New Testaments God sometimes sent a natural disaster to help His people. During a battle when Saul’s son Jonathan killed a Philistine, we read, “Then panic struck the whole [enemy] army—those in the camp and field, and those in the outposts and raiding parties—and the ground shook. It was a panic sent by God” (1 Samuel 14:15, NIV, italics added). And in the New Testament, an earthquake delivered Paul and Silas from prison: “Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off!” (Acts 16:25-26).
Both of these earthquakes had God’s signature on them.
God uses nature to do His bidding. Directly or indirectly, He can cause an earthquake to happen at five in the morning. God does as He wills.
Is Our God Really Good?
If God is the ultimate cause of all things and if He does as He wills on this earth—including with nature and natural disasters—can we put the blame on Him for the evil and suffering that these disasters cause? How can God be good when He permits (or does) things that seem so destructive and hurtful to human beings? Surely if we had the power to prevent an earthquake, if we could have stopped the tsunami, we would have done so.
Natural disasters are not “evil” in the usual sense of the word. If a tsunami took place in the middle of the ocean and did not affect any people, we would not think of it as evil. It’s when humans are affected, and when death and suffering occur, that such disasters become “evil.”
In light of what I’ve said, should God be blamed for such destructive disasters that create unfathomable human suffering? The word blame implies wrongdoing, and I don’t believe such a word should ever be applied to God. But even asking if God is responsible for natural disasters also might not be best, since the word responsibility usually implies accountability, and God is accountable to no one: “Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he wishes” (Psalm 115:3).
Let’s begin by agreeing that God plays by a different set of rules. If you were standing beside a swimming pool and watched a toddler fall in and did nothing to help, you could be facing a lawsuit for negligence. Yet God watches children drown—or, for that matter, starve—every day and does not intervene. He sends drought to countries in Africa, creating scarcity of food; He sends tsunamis, wiping out homes and crops.
We are obligated to keep people alive as long as possible, but if God were held to that standard, no one would ever die. Death is a part of the Curse: “You were made from dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). What for us would be criminal is an everyday occurrence for God.
Why the difference? God is the Creator; we are the creatures. Because God is the giver of life, He also has the right to take life. He has a long-term agenda that is much more complex than keeping people alive as long as possible. Death and destruction are a part of His plan. “‘My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,’ says the LORD. ‘And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
The philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote that natural disasters prove that God cannot be both good and all-powerful. If He were, suffering and happiness would be carefully meted out to all people, each person getting exactly what he or she deserved. Since natural disasters appear to be random, affecting both good and evil people, God therefore cannot be both good and all-powerful. Mill forgets, however, that we don’t receive our final rewards and punishments in this life. Indeed, the Scriptures teach that the godly often endure the most fearful calamities. God always acts from the standpoint of eternity rather than time; His decisions are made with an infinite perspective. Therefore, it comes down to this: we believe that God has a good and all-wise purpose for the heartrending tragedies disasters bring.
Speaking of the earthquake in Turkey that took thousands of lives, pastor and author John Piper says, “[God] has hundreds of thousands of purposes, most of which will remain hidden to us until we are able to grasp them at the end of the age” (John Piper, “Whence and Why?” World Magazine, September 4, 1993, 33). God has a purpose for each individual. For some, His purpose is that their days on earth end when disaster strikes; for the survivors there are other opportunities to rearrange priorities and focus on what really matters. The woman who said she lost everything but God during Hurricane Katrina probably spoke for thousands of people who turned to Him in their utter despair. God does not delight in the suffering of humanity. He cares about the world and its people: “But you, O Lord, are a God of compassion and mercy, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15). God does not delight in the death of the wicked but is pleased when they turn from their wicked ways (Ezekiel 18:23). We finite beings cannot judge our infinite God. He is not obligated to tell us everything He is up to. As Paul described it, the clay has no right to tell the potter what to do (Romans 9:19-21). It is not necessary for us to know God’s purposes before we bow to His authority. And the fact that we trust God even though He has not revealed the details is exactly the kind of faith that delights His heart. “It is impossible to please God without faith” (Hebrews 11:6). In chapter 5 we shall see that this sovereign God has given us reasons to trust Him. Faith will always be necessary, but our faith has strong supports. We do not believe clever fables but rather a credible account of God’s will, God’s power, and God’s dealings with us in the Bible.
Responding to the Hurting with Compassion
The God who created the laws of nature and allows them to “take their course” is the very same God who commands us to fight against these natural forces. Before the Fall, God gave Adam and Eve the mandate to rule over nature. After the Fall, the mandate continued even though the ground would yield thorns and thistles and childbearing would mean struggling with pain. The desire to live would become the fight to live.
We’ve seen it over and over—the relentless compassion of people reaching out to help others who have been faced with calamity. People offer money, goods, services, and their time and labor to bring aid where it is most needed. Charitable giving to the American Red Cross for Haiti relief set a record for mobile-generated donations, raising seven million dollars in twenty-four hours when Red Cross allowed people to send ten-dollar donations by text messages (Doug Gross, “Digital Fundraising Still Pushing Haiti Relief,” CNN, January 15, 2010, http://articles.cnn.com/2010-01-15/tech/online.donations.haiti_1_earthquake-haiti-haiti-relief-twitter-andfacebook?_s=PM:TECH). This is when God’s glory shines through even in the darkest times.
God uses nature both to bless and challenge us, to feed and instruct us. He wants us to fight against the devastation of natural disasters, even as we fight against the devil, so that we might become overcomers in this fallen world. Although nature is under God’s supervision, we are invited to fight disease and plagues.
We can and should strive for better medical care and clean water and food for the starving in Third World countries. We should be willing to help those who are in distress—even at great personal risk.
Martin Luther, when asked whether Christians should help the sick and dying when the plague came to Wittenberg, said that each individual would have to answer the question for himself. He believed that the epidemic was spread by evil spirits, but added, “Nevertheless, this is God’s decree and punishment to which we must patiently to which we must patiently submit and serve our neighbor, risking our lives in this manner John the apostle teaches, “If Christ laid down his life for us, we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren’” (1 John 3:16 and for more on Martin Luther see Timothy Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1989, 744).
In recent years, the news media have carried stories of virulent flu viruses that have infected humans in epidemic proportions. Some Christians might wonder if they should help those who are sick, risking their own lives for the sake of others. Disasters such as these make Luther’s comments about Wittenberg plague relevant. Martin Luther continued:
If it be God’s will that evil come upon us, none of our precautions will help us. Everybody must take this to heart: first of all, if he feels bound to remain where death rages in order to serve his neighbor, let him commend himself to God and say, “Lord, I am in thy hands; thou hast kept me here; they will be done. I am thy lowly creature. Thou canst kill me or preserve me in the pestilence in the same way if I were in fire, water, drought or any other danger” (Ibid, 742).
Yes the plague was “God’s decree,” but we also must do what we can to save the lives of the sick and minister to the dying, We should thank God when He gives us the opportunity to rescue the wounded when a disaster strikes. Tragedies give us the opportunity to serve the living and comfort the dying all around us. Through the tragedies of others, we have the opportunity to leave our comfortable lifestyles and enter the suffering of the world.
Historically, the church has always responded to tragedies with sacrifice and courage. During the third century, the writer Tertullian recorded that when plagues deserted their nearest relatives in the plague, Christians stayed and ministered to the sick.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, churches rose to the occasion to help the victims. Church members prepared tens of thousands of meals for people left homeless and scattered in shelters. One church would help another begin the painful process of relocation and reconstruction. Even the secular press had to admit that governmental red tape did not stop the churches from sacrificially helping in time of need. What the government and the Red Cross could not do, the people of God did. This is how it should be. This is how we become Jesus’ hands and feet in the world.
In the days after the 2011 Joplin tornado, one pastor’s wife wrote to a friend, “It [the tornado and its aftermath] has certainly stretched us. All the things that pastors deal with on a day-today basis—marriages in crisis, pettiness, misunderstandings, sins of all varieties—do not go away when the storms come. They do get put on the back burner. They catch fire. Other things that pastors deal with on a day-today basis—tireless, selfless, tenderhearted servants who are constantly seeking to please God and serve His church—do not go away either. They catch fire. I am amazed at these people.”
Jesus was touched by the plight that the curse of sin brought to this world. We see Him weep at the tomb of Lazarus, and we hear His groans. “Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance” (John 11:38). After the stone was removed, Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” (v. 43) and the dead man came to life in the presence of the astonished onlookers. The Jesus who stayed away for a few extra days so Lazarus would die is the very same Jesus who raised him from the dead.
Like Jesus, we mourn for the horrendous pain people experience on this planet. Like the weeping prophet Jeremiah, we find ourselves saying, “Rise during the night and cry out. Pour out your hearts like water to the Lord. Lift up your hands to him in prayer, pleading for your children, for in every street they are faint with hunger” (Lamentations 2:19).
Although modern medicine and technology allow us to stave off death as long as possible, eventually we will all be overcome by its power. Yet in the end, we sin! Christ has conquered death.
Responding to God in Faith
If there is still some doubt in your mind that ultimately God has control of nature, let me ask you: Have you ever prayed for beautiful weather for a wedding? Have you ever prayed for rain at a time of drought? Have you ever asked God to protect you during a severe storm? Many people who claim God has no control over the weather change their minds when a funnel cloud comes toward them. The moment we call out to Him in desperate prayer, we are admitting that He is in charge.
It is also vital to understand that if nature is out of God’s hands, then we are also out of God’s hands. We should be nothing more than victims of nature and thus die apart from His will. Jesus, however, assures His children that He will take care of us. “What is the price of five sparrows—two copper coins? Yet God does not forget a single one of them. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7). The God who cares for the tiny sparrows and counts the hairs on our heads is in charge of nature.
The ministers in California were right in thanking God that the earthquake came early in the morning when there was little traffic on the expressways. They were wrong, however, for saying that God was not in charge of the tragedy. Of course He was—both biblically and logically.
There is, perhaps, no greater mystery than human suffering, so let us humbly admit that we can’t determine God’s ways.
The eighteenth-century English poet William Cowper put the mysteries of God in perspective:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessing on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain (William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” Cowper’s Poems, ed. Hugh I’Anson Fausset. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1966, 188-189).
“Grieve not because thou understand not life’s mystery,” wrote a wise man. “Behind the veil is concealed many a delight” (Quoted in Charles Swindoll, The Mystery of God’s Will. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999, 115).
The trusting believer knows this is so.
About the Author:
Since 1980, Erwin W. Lutzer has served as senior pastor of the world-famous Moody Church in Chicago, where he provides leadership to Chicago pastors. Dr. Lutzer earned his B.Th. from Winnipeg Bible College, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, an M.A. in philosophy from Loyola University, an LL.D. from Simon Greenleaf School of Law, and a D.D. from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary.
Dr. Lutzer is a featured radio speaker on the Moody Broadcasting Network and the author of numerous books, including The Vanishing Power of Death, Cries from the Cross, the best-selling One Minute Before You Die and Hitler’s Cross, which received the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (EPCA) Gold Medallion Book Award. He speaks both nationally and internationally at Bible conferences and tours and has led tours of the cities of the Protestant Reformation in Europe.
Dr. Lutzer and his wife, Rebecca, live in the Chicago area and are the parents of three grown children. The article above was adapted from Chapter 2 in the short and insightful book by Erwin W. Lutzer. An Act of God: Answers to Tough Questions about God’s Role in Natural Disasters. Wheaton: Illinois, Tyndale House Publishers, 2011.
3 Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. 4 I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying, “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 5 we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. 6 We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. 7 To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. 8 To us, O Lord, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you. 9 To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him 10 and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by walking in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets. 11 All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him. 12 He has confirmed his words, which he spoke against us and against our rulers who ruled us, by bringing upon us a great calamity. For under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what has been done against Jerusalem. 13 As it is written in the Law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us; yet we have not entreated the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities and gaining insight by your truth. 14 Therefore the Lord has kept ready the calamity and has brought it upon us, for the Lord our God is righteous in all the works that he has done, and we have not obeyed his voice. 15 And now, O Lord our God, who brought your people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand, and have made a name for yourself, as at this day, we have sinned, we have done wickedly.
16 “O Lord, according to all your righteous acts, let your anger and your wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy hill, because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your people have become a byword among all who are around us. 17 Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. 18 O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. 19 O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.”
20 While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my plea before the Lord my God for the holy hill of my God, 21 while I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the first, came to me in swift flight at the time of the evening sacrifice. 22 He made me understand, speaking with me and saying, “O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding. 23 At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision (ESV).
But much of the Christian movement today has become a desolation of disobedience and disunity and dishonor to the name of Christ. So the way Daniel prays for the desolation of his people is a pointer for how we can pray for the desolation of ours.
Three Aspects of the Desolation of God’s People
Let me mention three aspects of the desolation of God’s people in this text to see if you won’t agree that it sounds like much of the Christian movement today.
1. The People Are Captive to Godless Forces
Two times, verses 11 and 13, Daniel says that this calamity of Babylonian captivity was warned against in the law of Moses. For example, in Deuteronomy 28:36 Moses says that if the people forsake God, “The Lord will bring you . . . to a nation that neither you nor your fathers have known; and there you shall serve other gods.” Now that had come true in Babylon.
In 1520, Martin Luther wrote an essay which he called “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” What he meant was that forces and powers that were foreign to Christ and to his Word had captured the mind and heart of the church. She was in bondage to godless forces.
That is the situation in much of the church today. Millions of church-goers today think the way the world thinks. The simple assumptions that govern behavior and choices come more from what is absorbed from our culture than from the Word of God. The church shares the love affair of the world with prosperity and ease and self. Many groups of Christians are just not that different from the spirit of Babylon, even though the Lord says that we are aliens and exiles and that we are not to be conformed to this age. So, like Israel of old, much of God’s church today is captive to godless forces.
2. The People Are Guilty and Ashamed
Daniel spends most of his prayer confessing the sin of the people. For example, verse 5: “We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from thy commandments.” In other words, we have great guilt before God. And because of this real guilt there is real shame. This is mentioned in verses 7 and 8. The RSV has the phrase “confusion of face”—”To us belongs confusion of face.” Literally it means, “To us belongs shame of face.” What we have done is so terrible and so known that our face turns red and we want to cover it and run away. That is the way Daniel felt about the people of God. Their guilt and their shame were great.
Today in the church there is an uneasy conscience. There is the deep sense that we are to be radically different, living on the brink of eternity with counter-cultural values and behaviors of love and justice and risk-taking service that show our citizenship is in heaven. But then, we look in the mirror and we see that the church does not look that way. And the result is a sense of shame based on the real guilt of unbelief and disobedience. So we slink through our days with faces covered, and scarcely anyone knows we are disciples of Jesus.
3. The People Were a Byword Among the Nations
Verse 16b: “Jerusalem and thy people have become a byword among all who are round about us.” “Byword” (in the RSV) means reproach, or object of scorn. It means that the nations look at the defeated and scattered Israelites and they laugh. They mock Israel’s God.
That is the way it is with the Christian church in many places. She has made the name of Jesus an object of scorn by her duplicity—trying to go by the name Christian and yet marching to the drum of the world. So the world sees the name “Christian” as nothing radically different—perhaps a nice way to add a little component of spirituality to the other parts of life that basically stay the same.
So when Daniel prays for the desolations of the people of Israel, I hear a prayer for the desolations of the Christian church—captive to godless forces, guilty and ashamed, and a byword among the nations.
Four Ways to Pray for a Desolate Church
Now how do we pray for such a church?
1. Go to the Bible
First, we pray for a desolate church by beginning where Daniel began. We go to the books.
Verse 2: “In the first year of [Darius’s] reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books . . . ” The books are the prophet Jeremiah and other biblical books. Prayer begins with the Bible.
George Mueller said that for years he tried to pray without starting in the Bible in the morning. And inevitably his mind wandered. Then he started with the Book, and turned the Book into prayer as he read, and for 40 years he was able to stay focused and powerful in prayer.
Without the Bible in our prayers, they will be just as worldly as the church we are trying to free from worldliness. Daniel’s prayer begins with the Bible and it is saturated with the Bible. Phrase after phrase comes right out of the Scriptures. There are allusions to Leviticus (26:40) and Deuteronomy (28:64) and Exodus (34:6) and Psalms (44:14) and Jeremiah (25:11). The prayer brims with a biblical view of reality, because it brims with the Bible.
What I have seen is that those whose prayers are most saturated with Scripture are generally most fervent and most effective in prayer. And where the mind isn’t brimming with the Bible, the heart is not generally brimming with prayer. This is not my idea. Jesus was pointing to it in John 15:7 when he said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you” (John 5:7). When he says, “If my words abide in you . . . ,” he means, “If my words saturate your mind . . . if my words shape your way if thinking . . . if my words are memorized and just as likely to come to your mind as advertising jingles . . . then you will pray so as to heal the desolations of the church.”
So the first way to pray for a desolate church is to go to the Book. Saturate your mind with the Bible. Pray the Scripture.
2. Confess Our Sin
The second way to pray for a desolate church is to confess our sin.
About 12 verses of Daniel’s prayer is confession: verses 4–15. This means being truthful about God and about sin.
It means recognizing sin as sin and calling it bad names, not soft names: things like wickedness and rebellion and wrong (v. 5) and treachery and shameful (v. 7) and disobedience (v. 10). It means recognizing God as righteous (v. 7) and great and fearful (v. 4) and merciful and forgiving (v. 9). It means feeling broken and remorseful and guilty (v. 8) before God.
Before God! There is a difference between feeling miserable because sin has made our life miserable and feeling broken because our sin has offended the holiness of God and brought reproach on his name. Daniel’s confession—biblical confession—is God-centered. The issue is not admitting that we have made our life miserable. The issue is admitting that there is something much worse than our misery, namely, the offended holiness and glory of God.
So we pray for a desolate church by going to the Book and by confessing our sins.
3. Remember Past Mercies Knowing God Never Changes
The way to pray for a desolate church is to remember past mercies, and be encouraged that God never changes.
Verse 15: “And now, O Lord our God, who didst bring thy people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand . . . ” Daniel knew that the reason God saved Israel from Egypt was not because Israel was so good. Psalm 106:7–8,
Our fathers, when they were in Egypt, did not consider thy wonderful works; they did not remember the abundance of thy steadfast love, but rebelled against the Most High at the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power.
Prayer for a desolate church is sustained by the memory of past mercies. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). If God saved a rebellious people once at the Red Sea, he can save them again. So when we pray for a desolate church, we can remember brighter days that the church has known, and darker days from which she was saved.
This is why church history is so valuable. There have been bad days before that God had turned around. The papers this week have been full of statistics of America’s downward spiral into violence and corruption. Church history is a great antidote to despair at times like this. For example, to read about the moral decadence and violence of 18th century England before God sent George Whitefield and John Wesley is like reading today’s newspapers. For example,
Only five or six members of parliament even went to church . . . The plague, small pox, and countless diseases we call minor today had no cures . . . Clothing was expensive, so many of the cities’ poor wore rags that were like their bedding, full of lice . . . The penalties for crimes seem barbaric today (hanging for petty thievery) . . . Young boys, and sometimes girls, were bound over to a master for seven years of training. They worked six days a week, every day from dawn to dusk and often beyond . . . If you were unlucky and starving, you might fall foul of the law and be packed off to the stench of New Gate Prison. From there, you might have the chance to go to the New World in a boat loaded with prisoners of all sorts . . . [Drunkenness was rampant] and gin was fed to the babies too, to keep them quiet, with blindness and often death as a result [did you think crack babies were a new thing?] . . . The people’s love of tormenting animals at bull-baitings was equaled only by their delight in a public execution. (“Revival and Revolution,” Christian History 2, pp. 7–8)
All that and more, including a desolate and corrupt and powerless church. Yet God moved with a great awakening. And to add hope upon hope for our prayers, he used two men who could not agree on some significant theological points and one of them was overweight and the other was 5′ 3″ tall and weighed 128 pounds.
We pray for a desolate church by remembering past mercies, past triumphs of grace. We remember that history is not a straight line down any more than it is a straight line up.
4. Appeal to God’s Zeal for the Glory of His Own Name
Finally, we pray for a desolate church by appealing to God’s zeal for the glory of his own name.
Look how the prayer comes to its climax in verses 18b–19: “We do not present our supplications before thee on the ground of our righteousness but on the ground of thy great mercy. 19) O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, give heed and act; delay not, for thy own sake, O my God, because thy city and thy people are called by thy name.”
The people of God are known by his name. And God has an infinite zeal for his own name. He will not let it be reproached and made a byword indefinitely. That is our deepest confidence. God is committed to God. God is committed with explosive passion to the glory of his name and the truth of his reputation.
So that’s the bottom of our prayer for a desolate church. We are called by your name. We live by your name. Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory. For your name’s sake, O Lord, save. For your name’s sake, revive. For your name’s sake purify and heal and empower your church, O Lord. For we are called by your name.
Sermon above: By Dr. John Piper, January 5, 1992. ©2012 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org.
About the Author: John Piper is pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. He grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and studied at Wheaton College, Fuller Theological Seminary (B.D.), and the University of Munich (D.theol.). For six years he taught Biblical Studies at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and in 1980 accepted the call to serve as pastor at Bethlehem. John is the author of more than 40 books and more than 30 years of his preaching and teaching is available free at desiringGod.org. John and his wife, Noel, have four sons, one daughter, and twelve grandchildren.
The Pelagian Captivity of the Church
by R.C. Sproul
Shortly after the Reformation began, in the first few years after Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, he issued some short booklets on a variety of subjects. One of the most provocative was titled The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. In this book Luther was looking back to that period of Old Testament history when Jerusalem was destroyed by the invading armies of Babylon and the elite of the people were carried off into captivity. Luther in the sixteenth century took the image of the historic Babylonian captivity and reapplied it to his era and talked about the new Babylonian captivity of the Church. He was speaking of Rome as the modern Babylon that held the Gospel hostage with its rejection of the biblical understanding of justification. You can understand how fierce the controversy was, how polemical this title would be in that period by saying that the Church had not simply erred or strayed, but had fallen — that it’s actually now Babylonian; it is now in pagan captivity.
I’ve often wondered if Luther were alive today and came to our culture and looked, not at the liberal church community, but at evangelical churches, what would he have to say? Of course I can’t answer that question with any kind of definitive authority, but my guess is this: If Martin Luther lived today and picked up his pen to write, the book he would write in our time would be entitled The Pelagian Captivity of the Evangelical Church. Luther saw the doctrine of justification as fueled by a deeper theological problem. He writes about this extensively in The Bondage of the Will. When we look at the Reformation and we see the solas of the Reformation — sola Scriptura, sola fide, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria, sola gratia — Luther was convinced that the real issue of the Reformation was the issue of grace; and that underlying the doctrine of solo fide, justification by faith alone, was the prior commitment to sola gratia, the concept of justification by grace alone.
In the Fleming Revell edition of The Bondage of the Will, the translators, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, included a somewhat provocative historical and theological introduction to the book itself. This is from the end of that introduction:
These things need to be pondered by Protestants today. 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 today 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? (J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, “Introduction” to the Bondage of the Will. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming Revell, 1957: pp. 59-60)
Historically, it’s a simple matter of fact that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and all the leading Protestant theologians of the first epoch of the Reformation stood on precisely the same ground here. On other points they had their differences. In asserting the helplessness of man in sin and the sovereignty of God in grace, they were entirely at one. To all of them these doctrines were the very lifeblood of the Christian faith. A modern editor of Luther’s works says this:
Whoever puts this book down without having realized that Evangelical theology stands or falls with the doctrine of the bondage of the will has read it in vain. The doctrine of free justification by faith alone, which became the storm center of so much controversy during the Reformation period, is often regarded as the heart of the Reformers’ theology, but this is not accurate. The truth is that their thinking was really centered upon the contention of Paul, echoed by Augustine and others, that the sinner’s entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only, and that the doctrine of justification by faith was important to them because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace. The sovereignty of grace found expression in their thinking at a more profound level still in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration (Ibid).
That is to say, that the faith that receives Christ for justification is itself the free gift of a sovereign God. The principle of sola fide is not rightly understood until it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of sola gratia. What is the source of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received, or is it a condition of justification which is left to man to fulfill? Do you hear the difference? Let me put it in simple terms. I heard an evangelist recently say, “If God takes a thousand steps to reach out to you for your redemption, still in the final analysis, you must take the decisive step to be saved.” Consider the statement that has been made by America’s most beloved and leading evangelical of the twentieth century, Billy Graham, who says with great passion, “God does ninety-nine percent of it but you still must do that last one percent.”
What Is Pelagianism?
Now, let’s return briefly to my title, “The Pelagian Captivity of the Church.” What are we talking about? Pelagius was a monk who lived in Britain in the fifth century. He was a contemporary of the greatest theologian of the first millennium of Church history if not of all time, Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. We have heard of St. Augustine, of his great works in theology, of his City of God, of his Confessions, and so on, which remain Christian classics.
Augustine, in addition to being a titanic theologian and a prodigious intellect, was also a man of deep spirituality and prayer. In one of his famous prayers, Augustine made a seemingly harmless and innocuous statement in the prayer to God in which he says: “O God, command what you wouldst, and grant what thou dost command.” Now, would that give you apoplexy — to hear a prayer like that? Well it certainly set Pelagius, this British monk, into orbit. When he heard that, he protested vociferously, even appealing to Rome to have this ghastly prayer censured from the pen of Augustine. Here’s why. He said, “Are you saying, Augustine, that God has the inherent right to command anything that he so desires from his creatures? Nobody is going to dispute that. God inherently, as the creator of heaven and earth, has the right to impose obligations on his creatures and say, ‘Thou shalt do this, and thou shalt not do that.’ ‘Command whatever thou would’ — it’s a perfectly legitimate prayer.”
It’s the second part of the prayer that Pelagius abhorred when Augustine said, “and grant what thou dost command.” He said, “What are you talking about? If God is just, if God is righteous and God is holy, and God commands of the creature to do something, certainly that creature must have the power within himself, the moral ability within himself, to perform it or God would never require it in the first place.” Now that makes sense, doesn’t it? What Pelagius was saying is that moral responsibility always and everywhere implies moral capability or, simply, moral ability. So why would we have to pray, “God grant me, give me the gift of being able to do what you command me to do”? Pelagius saw in this statement a shadow being cast over the integrity of God himself, who would hold people responsible for doing something they cannot do.
So in the ensuing debate, Augustine made it clear that in creation, God commanded nothing from Adam or Eve that they were incapable of performing. But once transgression entered and mankind became fallen, God’s law was not repealed nor did God adjust his holy requirements downward to accommodate the weakened, fallen condition of his creation. God did punish his creation by visiting upon them the judgment of original sin, so that everyone after Adam and Eve who was born into this world was born already dead in sin. Original sin is not the first sin. It’s the result of the first sin; it refers to our inherent corruption, by which we are born in sin, and in sin did our mothers conceive us. We are not born in a neutral state of innocence, but we are born in a sinful, fallen condition. Virtually every church in the historic World Council of Churches at some point in their history and in their creedal development articulates some doctrine of original sin. So clear is that to the biblical revelation that it would take a repudiation of the biblical view of mankind to deny original sin altogether.
This is precisely what was at issue in the battle between Augustine and Pelagius in the fifth century. Pelagius said there is no such thing as original sin. Adam’s sin affected Adam and only Adam. There is no transmission or transfer of guilt or fallenness or corruption to the progeny of Adam and Eve. Everyone is born in the same state of innocence in which Adam was created. And, he said, for a person to live a life of obedience to God, a life of moral perfection, is possible without any help from Jesus or without any help from the grace of God. Pelagius said that grace — and here’s the key distinction — facilitates righteousness. What does “facilitate” mean?
It helps, it makes it more facile, it makes it easier, but you don’t have to have it. You can be perfect without it. Pelagius further stated that it is not only theoretically possible for some folks to live a perfect life without any assistance from divine grace, but there are in fact people who do it. Augustine said, “No, no, no, no . . . we are infected by sin by nature, to the very depths and core of our being — so much so that no human being has the moral power to incline himself to cooperate with the grace of God. The human will, as a result of original sin, still has the power to choose, but it is in bondage to its evil desires and inclinations. The condition of fallen humanity is one that Augustine would describe as the inability to not sin. In simple English, what Augustine was saying is that in the Fall, man loses his moral ability to do the things of God and he is held captive by his own evil inclinations.
In the fifth century the Church condemned Pelagius as a heretic. Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Orange, and it was condemned again at the Council of Florence, the Council of Carthage, and also, ironically, at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century in the first three anathemas of the Canons of the Sixth Session. So, consistently throughout Church history, the Church has roundly and soundly condemned Pelagianism — because Pelagianism denies the fallenness of our nature; it denies the doctrine of original sin.
Now what is called semi-Pelagianism, as the prefix “semi” suggests, was a somewhat middle ground between full-orbed Augustinianism and full-orbed Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism said this: yes, there was a fall; yes, there is such a thing as original sin; yes, the constituent nature of humanity has been changed by this state of corruption and all parts of our humanity have been significantly weakened by the fall, so much so that without the assistance of divine grace nobody can possibly be redeemed, so that grace is not only helpful but it’s absolutely necessary for salvation. While we are so fallen that we can’t be saved without grace, we are not so fallen that we don’t have the ability to accept or reject the grace when it’s offered to us. The will is weakened but is not enslaved. There remains in the core of our being an island of righteousness that remains untouched by the fall. It’s out of that little island of righteousness, that little parcel of goodness that is still intact in the soul or in the will that is the determinative difference between heaven and hell. It’s that little island that must be exercised when God does his thousand steps of reaching out to us, but in the final analysis it’s that one step that we take that determines whether we go to heaven or hell — whether we exercise that little righteousness that is in the core of our being or whether we don’t. That little island Augustine wouldn’t even recognize as an atoll in the South Pacific. He said it’s a mythical island, that the will is enslaved, and that man is dead in his sin and trespasses.
Ironically, the Church condemned semi-Pelagianism as vehemently as it had condemned original Pelagianism. Yet by the time you get to the sixteenth century and you read the Catholic understanding of what happens in salvation the Church basically repudiated what Augustine taught and Aquinas taught as well. The Church concluded that there still remains this freedom that is intact in the human will and that man must cooperate with — and assent to — the prevenient grace that is offered to them by God. If we exercise that will, if we exercise a cooperation with whatever powers we have left, we will be saved. And so in the sixteenth century the Church reembraced semi-Pelagianism.
At the time of the Reformation, all the reformers agreed on one point: the moral inability of fallen human beings to incline themselves to the things of God; that all people, in order to be saved, are totally dependent, not ninety-nine percent, but one hundred percent dependent upon the monergistic work of regeneration in order to come to faith, and that faith itself is a gift of God. It’s not that we are offered salvation and that we will be born again if we choose to believe. But we can’t even believe until God in his grace and in his mercy first changes the disposition of our souls through his sovereign work of regeneration. In other words, what the reformers all agreed with was, unless a man is born again, he can’t even see the kingdom of God, let alone enter it. Like Jesus says in the sixth chapter of John, “No man can come to me unless it is given to him of the Father” — that the necessary condition for anybody’s faith and anybody’s salvation is regeneration.
Evangelicals and Faith
Modern Evangelicalism almost uniformly and universally teaches that in order for a person to be born again, he must first exercise faith. You have to choose to be born again. Isn’t that what you hear? In a George Barna poll, more than seventy percent of “professing evangelical Christians” in America expressed the belief that man is basically good. And more than eighty percent articulated the view that God helps those who help themselves. These positions — or let me say it negatively — neither of these positions is semi-Pelagian. They’re both Pelagian. To say that we’re basically good is the Pelagian view. I would be willing to assume that in at least thirty percent of the people who are reading this issue, and probably more, if we really examine their thinking in depth, we would find hearts that are beating Pelagianism. We’re overwhelmed with it. We’re surrounded by it. We’re immersed in it. We hear it every day. We hear it every day in the secular culture. And not only do we hear it every day in the secular culture, we hear it every day on Christian television and on Christian radio.
In the nineteenth century, there was a preacher who became very popular in America, who wrote a book on theology, coming out of his own training in law, in which he made no bones about his Pelagianism. He rejected not only Augustinianism, but he also rejected semi-Pelagianism and stood clearly on the subject of unvarnished Pelagianism, saying in no uncertain terms, without any ambiguity, that there was no Fall and that there is no such thing as original sin. This man went on to attack viciously the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and in addition to that, to repudiate as clearly and as loudly as he could the doctrine of justification by faith alone by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. This man’s basic thesis was, we don’t need the imputation of the righteousness of Christ because we have the capacity in and of ourselves to become righteous. His name: Charles Finney, one of America’s most revered evangelists. Now, if Luther was correct in saying that sola fide is the article upon which the Church stands or falls, if what the reformers were saying is that justification by faith alone is an essential truth of Christianity, who also argued that the substitutionary atonement is an essential truth of Christianity; if they’re correct in their assessment that those doctrines are essential truths of Christianity, the only conclusion we can come to is that Charles Finney was not a Christian. I read his writings and I say, “I don’t see how any Christian person could write this.” And yet, he is in the Hall of Fame of Evangelical Christianity in America. He is the patron saint of twentieth-century Evangelicalism. And he is not semi-Pelagian; he is unvarnished in his Pelagianism.
The Island of Righteousness
One thing is clear: that you can be purely Pelagian and be completely welcome in the evangelical movement today. It’s not simply that the camel sticks his nose into the tent; he doesn’t just come in the tent — he kicks the owner of the tent out. Modern Evangelicalism today looks with suspicion at Reformed theology, which has become sort of the third-class citizen of Evangelicalism. Now you say, “Wait a minute, R. C. Let’s not tar everybody with the extreme brush of Pelagianism, because, after all, Billy Graham and the rest of these people are saying there was a Fall; you’ve got to have grace; there is such a thing as original sin; and semi-Pelagians do not agree with Pelagius’ facile and sanguine view of unfallen human nature.” And that’s true. No question about it. But it’s that little island of righteousness where man still has the ability, in and of himself, to turn, to change, to incline, to dispose, to embrace the offer of grace that reveals why historically semi-Pelagianism is not called semi-Augustinianism, but semi-Pelagianism.
I heard an evangelist use two analogies to describe what happens in our redemption. He said sin has such a strong hold on us, a stranglehold, that it’s like a person who can’t swim, who falls overboard in a raging sea, and he’s going under for the third time and only the tops of his fingers are still above the water; and unless someone intervenes to rescue him, he has no hope of survival, his death is certain. And unless God throws him a life preserver, he can’t possibly be rescued. And not only must God throw him a life preserver in the general vicinity of where he is, but that life preserver has to hit him right where his fingers are still extended out of the water, and hit him so that he can grasp hold of it. It has to be perfectly pitched. But still that man will drown unless he takes his fingers and curls them around the life preserver and God will rescue him. But unless that tiny little human action is done, he will surely perish.
The other analogy is this: A man is desperately ill, sick unto death, lying in his hospital bed with a disease that is fatal. There is no way he can be cured unless somebody from outside comes up with a cure, a medicine that will take care of this fatal disease. And God has the cure and walks into the room with the medicine. But the man is so weak he can’t even help himself to the medicine; God has to pour it on the spoon. The man is so sick he’s almost comatose. He can’t even open his mouth, and God has to lean over and open up his mouth for him. God has to bring the spoon to the man’s lips, but the man still has to swallow it.
Now, if we’re going to use analogies, let’s be accurate. The man isn’t going under for the third time; he is stone cold dead at the bottom of the ocean. That’s where you once were when you were dead in sin and trespasses and walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air. And while you were dead hath God quickened you together with Christ. God dove to the bottom of the sea and took that drowned corpse and breathed into it the breath of his life and raised you from the dead. And it’s not that you were dying in a hospital bed of a certain illness, but rather, when you were born you were born D.O.A. That’s what the Bible says: that we are morally stillborn.
Do we have a will? Yes, of course we have a will. Calvin said, if you mean by a free will a faculty of choosing by which you have the power within yourself to choose what you desire, then we all have free will. If you mean by free will the ability for fallen human beings to incline themselves and exercise that will to choose the things of God without the prior monergistic work of regeneration then, said Calvin, free will is far too grandiose a term to apply to a human being.
The semi-Pelagian doctrine of free will prevalent in the evangelical world today is a pagan view that denies the captivity of the human heart to sin. It underestimates the stranglehold that sin has upon us.
None of us wants to see things as bad as they really are. The biblical doctrine of human corruption is grim. We don’t hear the Apostle Paul say, “You know, it’s sad that we have such a thing as sin in the world; nobody’s perfect. But be of good cheer. We’re basically good.” Do you see that even a cursory reading of Scripture denies this?
Now back to Luther. What is the source and status of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received? Or is it a condition of justification which is left to us to fulfill? Is your faith a work? Is it the one work that God leaves for you to do? I had a discussion with some folks in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently. I was speaking on sola gratia, and one fellow was upset.
He said, “Are you trying to tell me that in the final analysis it’s God who either does or doesn’t sovereignly regenerate a heart?”
And I said, “Yes;” and he was very upset about that. I said, “Let me ask you this: are you a Christian?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Do you have friends who aren’t Christians?”
He said, “Well, of course.”
I said, “Why are you a Christian and your friends aren’t? Is it because you’re more righteous than they are?” He wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t going to say, “Of course it’s because I’m more righteous. I did the right thing and my friend didn’t.” He knew where I was going with that question.
And he said, “Oh, no, no, no.”
I said, “Tell me why. Is it because you are smarter than your friend?”
And he said, “No.”
But he would not agree that the final, decisive issue was the grace of God. He wouldn’t come to that. And after we discussed this for fifteen minutes, he said, “OK! I’ll say it. I’m a Christian because I did the right thing, I made the right response, and my friend didn’t.”
What was this person trusting in for his salvation? Not in his works in general, but in the one work that he performed. And he was a Protestant, an evangelical. But his view of salvation was no different from the Roman view.
God’s Sovereignty in Salvation
This is the issue: Is it a part of God’s gift of salvation, or is it in our own contribution to salvation? Is our salvation wholly of God or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who say the latter, that it ultimately depends on something we do for ourselves, thereby deny humanity’s utter helplessness in sin and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all. It is no wonder then that later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being, in principle, both a return to Rome because, in effect, it turned faith into a meritorious work, and a betrayal of the Reformation because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, which was the deepest religious and theological principle of the reformers’ thought. Arminianism was indeed, in Reformed eyes, a renunciation of New Testament Christianity in favor of New Testament Judaism. For to rely on oneself for faith is no different in principle than to rely on oneself for works, and the one is as un-Christian and anti-Christian as the other. In the light of what Luther says to Erasmus there is no doubt that he would have endorsed this judgment.
And yet this view is the overwhelming majority report today in professing evangelical circles. And as long as semi-Pelagianism, which is simply a thinly veiled version of real Pelagianism at its core — as long as it prevails in the Church, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I know, however, what will not happen: there will not be a new Reformation. Until we humble ourselves and understand that no man is an island and that no man has an island of righteousness, that we are utterly dependent upon the unmixed grace of God for our salvation, we will not begin to rest upon grace and rejoice in the greatness of God’s sovereignty, and we will not be rid of the pagan influence of humanism that exalts and puts man at the center of religion. Until that happens there will not be a new Reformation, because at the heart of Reformation teaching is the central place of the worship and gratitude given to God and God alone. Soli Deo gloria, to God alone be the glory.
About the Author: Dr. R.C. Sproul is the founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, an international Christian education ministry located near Orlando, Florida. His teaching can be heard on the program Renewing Your Mind, which is broadcast on hundreds of radio outlets in the United States and in 40 countries worldwide. He is the executive editor of Tabletalk magazine and general editor of The Reformation Study Bible, and the author of more than seventy books (including some of my all time favorites: The Work of Christ; The Holiness of God; Chosen By God; Reason to Believe; Knowing Scripture; Willing to Believe; The Intimate Marriage; Pleasing God; If There’s A God, Why Are There Atheists?, and Defending The Faith) and scores of articles for national evangelical publications. Dr. Sproul also serves as president of Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies and Reformation Bible College. He currently serves as Senior Minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, FL. The article above was adapted from Modern Reformation, Vol 10, Number 3 (May/June 2001), pp. 22-29.
“The only source and norm of all Christian knowledge is the Holy Scripture.” This thematic statement introduces De Scriptura Sacra of Heinrich Heppe’s classic work in Reformed dogmatics and provides a succinct expression of the Reformation slogan: Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone). The two key words that are used to crystallize the sola character of Scripture are source and norm.
The Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura was given the status of the formal cause of the Reformation by Melanchthon and his Lutheran followers. The formal cause was distinguished from the material cause of Sola Fide (by faith alone). Though the chief theological issue of the Reformation was the question of the matter of justification, the controversy touched heavily on the underlying question of authority. As is usually the case in theological controversy, the issue of ultimate authority lurked in the background (though it was by no means hidden or obscure) of Luther’s struggle with Rome over justification. The question of the source of Luther’s doctrine and the normative authority by which it was to be judged was vital to his cause.
Sola Scriptura and Inerrancy
A brief historical recapitulation of the steps that led to Luther’s Sola Scriptura dictum may be helpful. After Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, a series of debates, correspondence, charges, and countercharges ensued, culminating in Luther’s dramatic stand at Worms in April 1521. The two most significant transitional points between the theses of 1517 and the Diet of Worms of 1521 were the debates at Augsburg and Leipzig.
In October 1518 Luther met with Cardinal Cajetan of the Dominicans. Cajetan was acknowledged to be the most learned theologian of the Roman Curia. In the course of their discussions Cajetan was able to elicit from Luther his views on the infallibility of the pope. Luther asserted that the pope could err and claimed that Pope Clement VI’s bull Unigenitus (1343) was contrary to Scripture.
In the summer of 1519 the dramatic encounter between Luther and Johannes von Eck took place at Leipzig. In this exchange Eck elicited from Luther the admission of his belief that not only could the pope err but church councils could and did err as well. It was at Leipzig that Luther made clear his assertion: Scripture alone is the ultimate, divine authority in all matters pertaining to religion.
Gordon Rupp gives the following account:
Luther affirmed that “among the articles of John Huss and the Hussites which were condemned, are many which are truly Christian and evangelical, and which the church universal cannot condemn!” This was sensational! There was a moment of shocked silence, and then an uproar above which could be heard Duke George’s disgusted, “Gad, Sir, that’s the Plague!… ” Eck pressed his advantage home, and Luther, trapped, admitted that since their decrees are also of human law, Councils may err.
So by the time Luther stood before the Diet of Worms, the principle of Sola Scriptura was already well established in his mind and work. Only the Scripture carries absolute normative authority. Why? For Luther the sola of Sola Scriptura was inseparably related to the Scriptures’ unique inerrancy. It was because popes could and did err and because councils could and did err that Luther came to realize the supremacy of Scripture. Luther did not despise church authority nor did he repudiate church councils as having no value. His praise of the Council of Nicea is noteworthy. Luther and the Reformers did not mean by Sola Scriptura that the Bible is the only authority in the church. Rather, they meant that the Bible is the only infallible authority in the church.
Paul Althaus summarizes the train of Luther’s thought by saying:
We may trust unconditionally only in the Word of God and not in the teaching of the fathers; for the teachers of the Church can err and have erred. Scripture never errs. Therefore it alone has unconditional authority. The authority of the theologians of the Church is relative and conditional. Without the authority of the words of Scripture, no one can establish hard and fast statements in the Church.
Thus Althaus sees Luther’s principle of Sola Scriptura arising as a corollary of the inerrancy of Scripture. To be sure, the fact that Scripture is elevated to be the sole authority of the church does not carry with it the necessary inference that it is inerrant. It could be asserted that councils, popes, and the Bible all err and still postulate a theory of Sola Scriptura. Scripture could be considered on a primus inter pares (“first among equals”) basis with ecclesiastical authority, giving it a kind of primacy among errant sources. Or Scripture could be regarded as carrying unique authority solely on the basis of its being the primary historical source of the gospel. But the Reformers’ view of Sola Scriptura was higher than this. The Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura involved inerrancy.
Sola Scriptura, ascribing to the Scriptures a unique authority, must be understood in a normative sense. Not descriptive, but rather normative authority is meant by the formula. The normative character of the Sola Scriptura principle may be seen by a brief survey of sixteenth-century Reformed confessions.
The Theses of Berne (1528): The Church of Christ makes no laws or commandments without God’s Word. Hence all human traditions, which are called ecclesiastical commandments, are binding upon us only in so far as they are based on and commanded by God’s Word (Sec. II).
The Geneva Confession (1536): First we affirm that we desire to follow Scripture alone as a rule of faith and religion, without mixing with it any other things which might be devised by the opinion of men apart from the Word of God, and without wishing to accept for our spiritual government any other doctrine than what is conveyed to us by the same Word without addition or diminution, according to the command of our Lord (Sec. I).
The French Confession of Faith (1559): We believe that the Word contained in these books has proceeded from God, and receives its authority from him alone, and not from men. And inasmuch as it is the rule of all truth, containing all that is necessary for the service of God and for our salvation, it is not lawful for men, nor even for angels, to add to it, to take away from it, or to change it. Whence it follows that no authority, whether of antiquity, or custom, or numbers, or human wisdom, or judgments, or proclamations, or edicts, or decrees, or councils, or visions, or miracles, should be opposed to these Holy Scriptures, but on the contrary, all things should be examined, regulated, and reformed according to them (Art. V).
The Belgic Confession (1561): We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and confirmation of our faith; believing, without any doubt, all things contained in them, not so much because the church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Ghost witnessed in our hearts that they are from God, whereof they carry the evidence in themselves (Art. V). Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule (Art. VII).
Second Helvetic Confession (1566): Therefore, we do not admit any other judge than Christ himself, who proclaims by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what is to be avoided (Chap. II).
Uniformly the sixteenth-century confessions elevate the authority of Scripture over any other conceivable authority. Thus, even the testimony of angels is to be judged by the Scriptures. Why? Because, as Luther believed, the Scriptures alone are inerrant. Sola Scriptura as the supreme norm of ecclesiastical authority rests ultimately on the premise of the infallibility of the Word of God.
Extent of the Norm
To what extent does the Sola Scriptura principle of authority apply? We hear statements that declare Scripture to be the “only infallible rule of faith and practice.” Does this limit the scope of biblical infallibility? Among advocates of limited inerrancy we hear the popular notion that the Bible is inerrant or infallible only when it speaks of matters of faith and practice. Matters of history or cosmology may contain error but not matters of faith and practice. Here we see a subtle shift from the Reformation principle. Note the difference in the following propositions:
A. The Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice.
B. The Bible is infallible only when it speaks of faith and practice.
In premise A, “faith and practice” are generic terms that describe the Bible. In premise B, “faith and practice” presumably describe only a particular part of the Bible. Premise A affirms that there is but one infallible authority for the church. The proposition sets no content limit on the infallibility of the Scriptures. Premise B gives a reduced canon of that which is infallible; that is, the Bible is infallible only when it speaks of faith and practice. This second premise represents a clear and decisive departure from the Reformation view.
Premise A does not say that the Bible provides information about every area of life, such as mathematics or physics. But it affirms that what he Bible teaches, it teaches infallibly.
The Source of Authority
Heppe’s sola indicates that the Bible is not only the unique and final authority of the church but is also the “only source of all Christian knowledge.” At first glance this statement may seem to suggest that the only source of revelation open to man is that found in Scripture. But that is not the intent of Heppe’s statement, nor is it the intent of the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura.
Uniformly the Reformers acknowledged general revelation as a source of knowledge of God. The question of whether or not that general revelation yields a bona fide natural theology was and is widely disputed, but there is no serious doubt that the Reformers affirmed a revelation present in nature. Thus the sola does not exclude general revelation but points beyond it to the sufficiency of Scripture as the unique source of written special revelation.
The context of the Sola Scriptura schema with respect to source was the issue (raised over against Rome) regarding the relationship of Scripture and Tradition. Central to the debate was the Council of Trent’s declaration regarding Scripture and Tradition. (Trent was part of the Roman counteroffensive to the Reformation, and Sola Scriptura was not passed over lightly in this counter-offensive.)
In the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent the following decree was formulated: This (Gospel), of old promised through the Prophets in the Holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, promulgated first with His own mouth, and then commanded it to be preached by His Apostles to every creature as the source at once of all saving truth and rules of conduct. It also clearly perceives that these truths and rules are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions, which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ Himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand. Following then, the examples of the Orthodox fathers, it receives and venerates with a feeling of piety and reverence all the books both of the Old and New Testaments, since one God is the author of both; also the traditions, whether they relate to faith or to morals, as having been dictated either orally by Christ or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic church in unbroken succession.
In this decree the Roman Catholic church apparently affirmed two sources of special revelation—Scripture and the Tradition of the church—although in recent years this “dual source” theory has come into question within the Roman church.
G. C. Berkouwer’s work on Vatican Council II provides a lengthy discussion of current interpretations of the Tridentine formula on Scripture and Tradition. Some scholars argue that Tradition adds no new content to Scripture but merely serves either as a depository in the life of the church or as a formal interpretive tool of the church. A technical point of historical research concerning Trent sheds some interesting light on the matter. In the original draft of the fourth session of Trent the decree read that “the truths … are contained partly [partim] in Scripture and partly [partim] in the unwritten traditions.” But at a decisive point in the Council’s deliberations two priests, Nacchianti and Bonnucio rose in protest against the partim … partim formula. These men protested on the grounds that this view would destroy the uniqueness and sufficiency of Scripture. All we know from that point on is that the words partly … partly were removed from the text and replaced by the word and (et). Did this mean that the Council responded to the protest and perhaps left the relationship between Scripture and Tradition purposely ambiguous? Was the change stylistic, meaning that the Council still maintained two distinct sources of revelation? These questions are the focus of the current debate among Roman theologians.
One thing is certain. The Roman church has interpreted Trent as affirming two sources of special revelation since the sixteenth century. Vatican I spoke of two sources. The papal encyclical Humani Generis spoke of “sources of revelation.” Even Pope John XXIII spoke of Scripture and Tradition in Ad Petri Cathedram.
Not only has the dual-source theory been confirmed both by ecumenical councils and papal encyclicals, but tradition has been appealed to on countless occasions to validate doctrinal formulations that divide Rome and Protestantism. This is particularly true regarding decisions in the area of Mariology.
Over against this dual-source theory stands the sola of Sola Scriptura. Again, the Reformers did not despise the treasury of church tradition. The great councils of Nicea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, and Constantinople receive much honor in Protestant tradition. The Reformers themselves gave tribute to the insights of the church fathers. Calvin’s love for Augustine is apparent throughout the Institutes. Luther’s expertise in the area of Patristics was evident in his debates with Cajetan and Eck. He frequently quotes the fathers as highly respected ecclesiastical authorities. But the difference is this: For the Reformers no church council, synod, classical theologian, or early church father is regarded as infallible. All are open to correction and critique. We have no Doctor Irrefragabilis of Protestantism.
Protestant churches have tended to be confessional in character. Subscription to confessions and creeds has been mandatory for the clergy and parish of many denominations. Confessions have been used as a test of orthodoxy and conformity to the faith and practice of the church. But the confessions are all regarded as reformable. They are considered reformable because they are considered fallible. But the Sola Scriptura principles in its classic application regards the Scripture as irreformable because of its infallibility. Thus the two primary thrusts of Sola Scriptura point to:
1) Scripture’s uniqueness as normative authority and
2) its uniqueness as the source of special revelation. Norm and source are the twin implicates of the Sola Scriptura principle.
Is Sola Scriptura the Essence of Christianity?
In a recent publication on questions of Scripture, Bernard Ramm wrote an essay entitled, “Is ‘Scripture Alone’ the Essence of Christianity?” Using the nineteenth-century German penchant for the quest of the “Wesen” of Christianity as a jumping-off point, Ramm gives a brief history of the liberal-conservative controversy concerning the role of Scripture in the Christian faith. Defining Wesen as “the essence of something, the real spirit or burden of a treatise, the heart of the matter,” he concludes that Scripture is not the Wesen of Christianity. He provides a historical survey to indicate that neither the Reformers nor the strong advocates of inerrancy, A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield, believed that Sola Scriptura was the essence of Christianity. Ramm cites numerous quotations from Hodge and Warfield that speak of the Scriptures as being “absolutely infallible,” and “without error of facts or doctrines.” Yet these men affirmed that “Christianity was true independently of any theory of inspiration, and its great doctrines were believable within themselves.”
Ramm goes on to express grave concern about the present debate among evangelicals concerning inerrancy. Here his concern focuses not on the teaching of Hodge and Warfield but on the attitudes of their contemporary disciples who, in Ramm’s opinion, go beyond their forefathers in asserting a particular view of Scripture as being Christianity’s essence. Ramm writes:
From the other writings of Warfield in particular, it would be impossible to say that he identified the Wesen of Christianity with his view of Holy Scripture. He was enough of a historian of theology to avoid saying that. The “inspiration” article was an essay in strategy. However, among current followers of the so-called Warfield position there have been certain shifts away from the original strategic stance of the essay. One’s doctrine of Scripture has become now the first and most important doctrine, one’s theory of the wesen of Christianity, so that all other doctrines have validity now only as they are part of the inerrant Scripture. Thus evangelical teachers, or evangelical schools or evangelical movements, can be judged as to whether or not they are true to the wesen of Christianity by their theory of inspiration. It can be stated even more directly: an evangelical has made a theory of inspiration the wesen of Christianity if he assumes that the most important doctrine in a man’s theology, and most revelatory of the entire range of his theological thought, is his theology of inspiration.
It appears from this statement that the “essence” of Ramm’s concern for the present state of evangelicalism is that one’s doctrine of Scripture is viewed as the essence or wesen of Christianity. This writer can only join hands with Ramm in total agreement with his concern. To make one’s view of Scripture in general or of inspiration in particular the essence of Christianity would be to commit an error of the most severe magnitude. To subordinate the importance of the gospel itself to the importance of our historical source book of it would be to obscure the centrality of Christ. To subordinate Sola Fide to Sola Scriptura would be to misunderstand radically the wesen of the Reformation. Clearly Ramm is correct in taking his stand on this point with Hodge, Warfield, and the Reformers. Who can object to that?
One may be troubled, however, by a portion of Ramm’s stated concern. Who are these “current followers” of Warfield who in fact do maintain that Sola Scriptura is the heart or essence of Christianity? What disciple of Warfield’s has ever maintained that Sola Scriptura is essential to salvation? Ramm provides us with no names or documentary evidence to demonstrate that his deep concern is warranted.
To be sure, strong statements have been made by followers of the Warfield school of the crucial importance of Sola Scriptura and the centrality of biblical authority to all theological disputes. Perhaps these statements have contained some “overkill” in the passion of debate, which is always regrettable. We must be very cautious in our zeal to defend a high view of Scripture not to give the impression that we are talking about an article on which our salvation depends.
We can cite the following statements by advocates of the Warfield school that could be construed as a possible basis for Ramm’s concern. In God’s Inerrant Word, J. I. Packer makes the following assertion:
What Luther thus voiced at Worms shows the essential motivation and concern, theological and religious, of the entire Reformation movement: namely that the Word of God alone must rule, and no Christian man dare do other than allow it to enthrone itself in his conscience and heart.
Here Packer calls the notion of Sola Scriptura “the essential motivation and concern” of the Reformation. In itself this quote certainly suggests that Packer views Sola Scriptura as the essence of the Reformation.
However, in defense of Packer it must be noted that to say Sola Scriptura was the essential motivation of the Reformation movement is not to say that Sola Scriptura is the essence of Christianity. He is speaking here of a historical controversy. That Sola Scriptura was at the heart of the controversy and central to the debate cannot be doubted. To say that Sola Scriptura was an essential motif or concern of the Reformation cannot be doubted. That is was the essential concern may be brought into question; this may be regraded as an overstatement. But again, in fairness to Packer, it must be noted that earlier in his essay he had already indicated that Justification by Faith Alone was the material principle. So he had already maintained that Sola Scriptura was subordinate to Sola Fide in the controversy. In any case, though the word essential is used, there is no hint here that Packer maintains that Sola Scriptura is the essence of Christianity.
In a recent unpublished essay, Richard Lovelace of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary cites both Harold Lindsell and Francis Schaeffer as men who have sounded urgent warnings concerning the relationship between inerrancy and evangelicalism. Lovelace cites the following statements of Schaeffer:
There is not use of evangelicalism seeming to get larger and larger, if at the same time appreciable parts … are getting soft at that which is the central core, namely the Scriptures.… We must say most lovingly but clearly: evangelicalism is not consistently evangelical unless there is a line drawn between those who take a full view of Scripture and those who do not.
Again Schaeffer is cited: “Holding to a strong view of Scripture or not holding to it is the watershed of the evangelical world.” In these statements Francis Schaeffer maintains that the Scriptures are:
1) the “central core” of evangelicalism,
2) a mark of “consistent evangelicalism,” and
3) the “watershed of the evangelical world.”
These are strong assertions about the role of Sola Scriptura, but they are made with reference to evangelicalism, not Christianity (though I am sure Schaeffer believes evangelicalism is the purest expression of Christianity to be found). Evangelicalism refers to a historical position or movement. When he speaks of “watersheds,” he is speaking of crucial historical turning points. When he speaks of “consistent” evangelicalism, he implies there may be such a thing as inconsistent evangelicalism.
The troublesome quote of Schaeffer is that one in which he says the Scriptures are “the central core” of evangelicalism. Here “core” is in the singular with the definite article giving it a sola character. Does Schaeffer mean that the Bible is the core of evangelicalism and the gospel is the husk? Is Sola Scriptura the center and Sola Fide at the periphery of evangelicalism? It is hard to think that Schaeffer would make such an assertion. Indeed, one may question if Schaeffer means what he in fact does say here. Had he said, “Scripture is at the core of evangelicalism,” there would be no dispute. But to say it is the core appears an overstatement. Perhaps we have here a slip of the pen, which any of us can and frequently do make.
In similar fashion Harold Lindsell may be quoted: “Is the term ‘evangelical’ broad enough in its meaning to include within it believers in inerrancy and believers in an inerrancy limited to matters of faith and practice?” Lindsell raises the question of whether or not inerrancy of the entire Bible is essential to the term evangelical. The question raised is: If Sola Scriptura in its fullest sense is of the Wesen of evangelicalism, can one who espouses limited inerrancy be genuinely called evangelical? The issue is the meaning of the term evangelical. Does it carry with it the automatic assumption of full inerrancy? Again we must point out the difference between the historical label “evangelical” and what is essential to Christianity.
None of the scholars mentioned have said that adherence to inerrancy or Sola Scriptura is essential to salvation. None have Sola Scriptura as the Wesen of Christianity.
It could be said that the argument of the writer of this chapter is constructed on straw men who “come close” to asserting that Sola Scriptura is the essence of Christianity but who, in the final analysis, shrink for such an assertion. But it is not my purpose to create straw men. It is simply to find some basis for Ramm’s assertion about modern followers of Warfield. Since I have not been able to find any followers of Warfield who assert Sola Scriptura as the Wesen of Christianity, the best I can do is to cite examples of statements that could possibly be misconstrued to assert that. It is probably charity that restrained Ramm from naming those he had in mind. But unfortunately, the absence of names casts a shadow of suspicion over all modern followers of Warfield who hold to full inerrancy.
Though advocates of inerrancy in the full sense of Sola Scriptura do not regard it as being essential to salvation, they do maintain that the principle is crucial to Christianity and to consistent evangelicalism. That in Scripture we have divine revelation is no small matter. That the gospel rests not on human conjecture or relational speculation is of vital importance. But there is no quarrel with Ramm on these points. He summarizes his own position by saying:
1. There is no questioning of the Sola Scriptura in theology. Scripture is the supreme and final authority in theological decision-making.
2. One’s views of revelation, inspiration, and interpretation are important. They do implicate each other. Our discussion rather has been whether a certain view of inspiration could stand as the wesen of Christianity. We have in no manner suggested that matters of revelation, inspiration, and interpretation are unimportant in theology.
Here we delight in agreement with this strong affirmation of the crucial importance of Sola Scriptura.
Strangely, however, Ramm continues his summary by saying, “If the integrity of other evangelicals, evangelical schools, or evangelical movements are assessed by their view of inspiration, then, for them, inspiration has become the wesen of Christianity.” The inference Ramm draws at this point is at once puzzling and astonishing, and perhaps we meet here merely another case of overstatement or a slip of the pen. How would it follow from an assessment of others’ evangelicalism as being consistent or inconsistent according to their view of Scripture that inspiration has become the wesen of Christianity? This inference involves a quantum leap of logic.
If the first two points of Ramm’s summary are correct—that Sola Scriptura is important and that it implicates views of interpretation and theological decision making—why should not a school’s or movement’s integrity (a fully integrated stance) be assessed by this principle? Though Sola Scriptura is not the wesen of Christianity, it is still of crucial importance. If a school or movement softens its view of Scripture, that does not mean it has repudiated the essence of Christianity. But it does mean that a crucial point of doctrine and classical evangelical unity has been compromised. If, as Ramm suggests, one’s view of Scripture is so important, then a weakening of that view should concern us.
The issue of full or limited inerrancy is a serious one among those within the framework of historic evangelicalism. In the past a healthy and energetic spirit of cooperation has existed among evangelicals from various and diverse theological persuasions and ecclesiastical affiliations. Lutherans and Baptists, Calvinists and Arminians, and believers of all sorts have united in evangelical activity. What has been the cohesive force of that unity? In the first instance, there has been a consensus of catholic articles of faith, such as the deity of Christ. In the second instance, a strong point of unity has been the cardinal doctrine of the Protestant Reformation: justification by faith alone. In the last instance, there has been the unifying factor of Sola Scriptura in the sense of full inerrancy. The only “creed” that has bound the Evangelical Theological Society together, for example, has been the affirmation of inerrancy. Now that point of unity is in jeopardy. The essence of Christianity is not the issue. But a vital point of consistent evangelicalism is.
Sola Scriptura and Limited Inerrancy
Is Sola Scriptura compatible with a view of Scripture that limits inerrancy to matters of faith and practice? Theoretically it would seem to be possible if “faith and practice” could be separated from any part of Scripture. So long as biblical teaching regarding faith and practice were held to be normative for the Christian community, there would appear to be no threat to the essence of Christianity. However, certain problems exist with such a view of Scripture that do seriously threaten the essence of Christianity.
The first major problem we encounter with limited inerrancy is the problem of canon reduction. The canon or “norm” of Scripture is reduced de facto to that content relating to faith and practice. This immediately raises the hermeneutical question concerning what parts of Scripture deal with faith. As evangelicals wrestle among themselves in intramural debates, they must keep one eye focused on the liberal world of biblical scholarship, for the principle of the reduction of canon to matters of “faith” is precisely the chief operative in Bultmann’s hermeneutic. Bultmann thinks we must clear away the prescientific and faulty historical “husk” of Scripture to get to the viable kernel of “faith.” Thus, although Bultmann has no inerrant kernel or kerygma to fall back on, his problem of canon reduction remains substantially the same as that of those who limit inerrancy to faith and practice.
Before someone cries foul or cites the informal fallacy of argumentum ad hominem (abusive) or the “guilt by association” fallacy, let this concern be clarified. I am not saying that advocates of limited inerrancy are cryptic or even incipient Bultmannians, but that there is one very significant point of similarity between the two schools: canon reductionism. Evangelical advocates of limited inerrancy are not expected to embrace Bultmann’s mythical view of New Testament supernaturalism. But their method has no inherent safeguard from an arbitrary delimitation of the scope of the biblical canon.
The second serious problem, closely related to the first, is the problem of the relationship of faith and history, perhaps the most serious question of contemporary New Testament scholarship. If we limit the notion of inerrancy to matters of faith and practice, what becomes of biblical history? Is the historical substratum of the gospel negotiable? Are only those portions of the biblical narrative that have a clear bearing on faith inerrant? How do we escape dehistoricizing the gospel and relegating it to a level of supratemporal existential “decision”? We know that the Bible is not an ordinary history book but a book of redemptive history. But is it not also a book of redemptive history? If we exclude the realm of history from the category of inspiration or inerrancy either in whole or in part, do we not inevitably lose the gospel?
The third problem we face with limiting inerrancy to matters of faith and practice is an apologetic one. To those critics outside the fellowship of evangelicals, the notion of “limited inerrancy” appears artificial and contrived. Limited inerrancy gets us off the apologetical hook by making us immune to religious-historical criticism. We can eat our cake and have it too. The gospel is preserved; and our faith and practice remains intact while we admit errors in matters of history and cosmology. We cannot believe the Bible concerning earthly things, but we stake our lives on what it says concerning heavenly things. That approach was totally abrogated by our Lord (John 3:12).
How do we explain and defend the idea that the Bible is divinely superintended in part of its content but not all of it? Which part is inspired? Why only the faith and practice parts? Again, which are the faith and practice parts? Can we not justly be accused of “weaseling” if we adopt such a view? We remove our faith from the arena of historical verification nor falsification. This is a fatal blow for apologetics as the reasoned defense of Christianity.
Finally, we face the problem of the domino theory. Frequently this concern is dismissed out of hand as being so much alarmism. But our doctrine of Scripture is not a child’s game of dominoes. We know instances in which men have abandoned belief in full inerrancy but have remained substantially orthodox in the rest of their theology. We are also aware of the sad instances in which full inerrancy is affirmed yet the substance of theology is corrupt. Inerrancy is no guarantee of biblical orthodoxy. Yet even a cursory view of church history has shown some pattern of correlation between a weakening of biblical authority and serious defection regarding the Wesen of Christianity. The wesen of nineteenth-century liberalism is hardly the gospel evangelicals embrace.
We have already seen, within evangelical circles, a move from limited inerrancy to challenges of matters of faith and practice. When the apostle Paul is depicted as espousing two mutually contradictory views of the role of women in the church, we see a critique of apostolic teaching that does touch directly on the practice of the church. In the hotly disputed issue of homosexuality we see denominational commissions not only supplementing biblical authority with corroborative evidence drawn from modern sources of medical psychological study but also “correcting” the biblical view by such secular authority.The direction of these movements of thought is a matter of grave concern for advocates of full inerrancy.
We face a crisis of authority in the church. It is precisely our faith and our practice that is in question. It is for faith and practice that we defend a fully infallible rule—a total view of Sola Scriptura.
We know some confusion has existed (much unnecessarily) about the meaning of full inerrancy. But with all the problems of definition that plague the concept, we do not think it has died the death of a thousand qualifications.
We are concerned about Sola Scriptura for many reasons. But we affirm it in the final analysis not because it was the view of the Reformers, not because we slavishly revere Hodge and Warfield, not even because we are afraid of dominoes or a difficult apologetic. We defend it and express our deep concern about it because we believe it is the truth. It is a truth we do not want to negotiate. We earnestly desire dialogue with our evangelical brothers and colaborers who differ from us. We want to heal the wounds that controversy so frequently brings. We know our own views are by no means inerrant. But we believe inerrancy is true and is of vital importance to our common cause of the gospel.
Further dialogue within the evangelical world should at least help us clarify what real differences there are among us. Such clarification is important if there is to be any hope of resolving those differences. We do not intend to communicate that a person’s Christian faith stands or falls with his view of Scripture. We do not question the Christian commitment of advocates of limited inerrancy. What we do question is the correctness of their doctrine of Scripture, as the question ours. But we consider this debate, as serious as it is, a debate between members of the household of God. May our Father bring us to unity here as he has in many glorious affirmations of his gospel.
Article above written by Dr. R.C. Sproul. “Sola Scriptura: Crucial to Evangelicalism.” The Foundations of Biblical Authority. James M. Boice, ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980.
About the Author: Dr. R.C. Sproul is the founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, an international Christian education ministry located near Orlando, Florida. His teaching can be heard on the program Renewing Your Mind, which is broadcast on hundreds of radio outlets in the United States and in 40 countries worldwide. He is the executive editor of Tabletalk Magazine and general editor of The Reformation Study Bible, and the author of more than seventy books (including some of my all time favorites: THE HOLINESS OF GOD; CHOSEN BY GOD; KNOWING SCRIPTURE; WILLING TO BELIEVE; REASON TO BELIEVE; and PLEASING GOD) and scores of articles for national evangelical publications. Dr. Sproul also serves as president of Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies and Reformation Bible College. He currently serves as Senior Minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, FL
Series: On This Day In Christian History
Significant Events on This Day:
1453: Patrick Yohannis XI issued a bull on the West Indies, drawing a line of demarcation between the colonial possessions of Spain and Portugal.
1521: Martin Luther arrived at Wartburg (castle pictured on left) after having been kidnapped for his own protection by German ruler Frederick the Wise on his way home from the Diet (Congress) of Worms. During his months there, Luther translated the Bible into German (Luther’s study at Wartburg Castle where he did his translation pictured on right).
1535: King Henry VIII of England had several Carthusian monks hanged, drawn and quartered in London for refusing to submit to him as head of the church.
1923: Sir William Robertson Nicoll died. The sickly scholar was in bed for much of his life but read two books a day and wrote the Expositor’s Bible (mini-biography in article below).
“Father Damien: Minister to Sufferers of Leprosy on Molokai”
“I am ready to be buried alive with those poor wretches.” The man who said this was father Damien. The wretches he spoke of were the miserable sufferers of leprosy on Molokai Island. Leprosy was the curse of the Hawaiian archipelago, which was so blessed in other ways. People with the disease were isolated on the peninsula of Molokai. The disease causes nerves to die and leads to damage of the body’s extremities. Leprosy was so feared that the Hawaiian government made it illegal for anyone landing on the peninsula to return to the other islands. Damien knew that if he went, he would not be allowed to return. On this day, May 4, 1873, he made an irrevocable decision: He would confront the gates of hell (Father Damien pictured on left in 1873 shortly before he left for Molokai).
Conditions on the island were bestial. Demon-faced men raped beautiful young girls in whom leprosy had just been discovered in the stages of final decay. Victims of the dreadful disease threw weaker victims out of the huts to die. Not that the huts were wonderful: They were hideous with disease and despair. Most of the wretched men and women reeked of a decaying flesh.
Damien turned white as a sheet as he landed on the beach. Yet he prayed to be able to see Christ in the ghastly forms before him. Given one last chance to leave he refused. He had volunteered for hell, and he intended to civilize it.
The son of a Flemish farmer, Damien had entered the priesthood with great fervor. His very presence in Hawaii was the result of constant appeals to his supervisor to let him go. Once there, he proved himself a determined evangelist.
Nothing he had done before could compare with the efforts he now made. Although water was plentiful in the mountains,, there was little in the settlement, so Damien organized daily bucket brigades. Later he constructed a channel that diverted a stream of water to the very doorsteps of the unhealthy town. He developed farms. The apathetic lepers had neglected even this simple attempt to make themselves self-sufficient. He burned the worst houses and scoured out those that could be salvaged. Saw and axe in hand, he built new houses. He laid out a cemetery, stating that from that point on, anyone who died would be properly buried. He prepared a dump and cleaned up the village and its land. He shut down alcohol stills.
And he told his decaying audience about Christ. His cheerful conversation led dozens to turn to Christ. The same men who had been stealing from dying outcasts or dumping them into ditches to die asked for baptism (Island of Molokai pictured on right).
Jealous Hawaiian authorities and Protestant missionaries, who had done little for the outcasts, spread scandalous stories about Damien. But he labored on.
Twelve years after he arrived on the island, Damien discovered that his own feet were leprous. Four years later he was dead. His quiet heroism won worldwide renown. It brought new donations to help the leper colony and staff nurses and other helpers. By his gruesome living death, Damien assaulted the gates of hell.
Author’s of the Above Article: A. Kenneth Curtis and Daniel Graves edited This Day In Christian History. Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications Inc., 2005. The article above was adapted from the entry for May 4th.
A. Kenneth Curtis, Ph.D, is president of the Christian History Institute and the founding editor of Christian History magazine. He has written and produced several award winning historical films for Gateway Films/Vision Video’s Church history collection. He is also coauthor of 100 Most Important Dates in Christian History and From Christ to Constantine: The Trial and Testimony of the Early Church. He and his wife, Dorothy, reside in eastern Pennsylvania.
Daniel Graves is the Webmaster for the Christian History Institute and holds a master’s degree in library science from Western Michigan University. He is the author of Doctors Who Followed Christ and Scientists of Faith. Dan and wife, Pala reside in Jackson, Michigan.
“Weak Lungs: Sir William Robertson Nicoll”
Sickness proved a blessing for W. Robertson Nicoll, for it determined his career and ministry. He was born in 1851 with weak lungs. His mother, brother, and sister died from tuberculosis. He was raised by his father, Pastor Harry Nicoll, whose church numbered 100 souls—but whose library numbered 17,000 books.
Inheriting his dad’s love for literature, Robertson began a weekly column for the Aberdeen Journal. He started pastoring, but doctors told him his lungs were too weak for preaching. He contracted typhoid and pleurisy, resigned his church, and retreated to his books. Here Robertson found his calling.
He was already editing a magazine called The Expositor, and in 1886 he began The British Weekly. It became a leading Christian journal in Britain. He then started The Bookman, and two years later The Woman at Home appeared in magazine stalls. While editing his four periodicals, Robertson began publishing books (he read two books a day throughout his life). The Expositor’s Bible, a series of 50 volumes, was released between 1888 and 1905. Then The Expositor’s Greek New Testament appeared. Robertson persuaded Alexander Maclaren to issue his expositions; then he found and developed other writers. In all, Robertson edited hundreds of titles and wrote 40 books of his own. He became the most prolific and respected Christian journalist in the English-speaking world.
In 1909, while being knighted, he said, “I never contemplated a literary career. I had expected to go on as a minister, doing literary work in leisure times, but my fate was sealed for me.” His illness forced him to do much of his work propped in bed amid the clutter of newspapers, books, pipes, and cigarette ashes. His cats purred nearby, and he always kept a fire burning, claiming that fresh air was the devil’s invention. His library contained 25,000 volumes, including 5,000 biographies. “I have read every biography I could lay my hands on,” he said, “and not one has failed to teach me something.”
Sir W. Robertson Nicoll died on May 4, 1923. Among his last words were, “I believe everything I have written about immortality!”
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” – Isaiah 55:10-11
About the Author: Robert J. Morgan, is the pastor of Donelson Fellowship in Nashville, Tennessee and the author of the best-selling Then Sings My Soul, From This Verse, Red Sea Rules, and On This Day – this article was adapted from the May 4th entry in this excellent book. He conducts Bible conferences, parenting and marriage retreats, and leadership seminars across the country.
“Jessie Hetherington: Voyaging to Australia—But Ending Up in Paradise”
On May 4, 1837, Jessie Hetherington began a letter to her mother that she never finished.
Several months earlier Jessie and Irving Hetherington had been married and immediately left Scotland for Sydney, Australia. Before their wedding, Irving had a fruitful ministry in the poor suburbs of Edinburgh. While involved in this work, he felt the call of God when he heard a request for preachers in New South Wales, Australia, even though he knew it might mean the end of his engagement to Jessie. Jessie, however, gladly agreed to accompany him: “Where you wish to take me, there I will go.” Three months later into the voyage to Sydney, Jessie caught scarlet fever and died just days later. (All Saints Church in New South Wales pictured on left).
The following is an excerpt from the letter Irving finished for his wife:
I write now in Sydney, for, during our whole voyage, we met no opportunity in England; yet is my Jessie’s every look and every tone as distinctly engraved on my memory—as fully remembered, as they were two months ago. O yes! I never can forget. And in particular will you be anxious to know what was her experience in the prospect of eternity. It was of the serenity of heaven. Let me die the death f the righteous, and let my last end be like hers. O, it was the most perfect peace! On the surgeon appraising me on Tuesday of her extreme danger, I thought it right to communicate this to her. She was quite collected at the time; and was looking at me in the affectionate manner that was so usual to her, and which will, I think, never cease to haunt my dreams. I said to her that Mr. Thompson did not give us reason to expect her recovery. “It is the Lord’s will, and we must submit, Irving,” she quietly answered. “And have you no fear then, of death, Jessie? “No, dear.” “And how is it that you are not afraid to die?” “I have long taken Christ for my portion, and set my hopes on Him.” I could but weep. Afterwards I asked her what word of God gave her the most comfort. “Come unto me all you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” she replied, with much eagerness; and, after I had made some remarks on this, she bade me repeat some of those Scriptures in which salvation by grace is offered to sinners. This I continued to do, when I thought she was in a state of consciousness; and prayed with her day and night. Her spirit ascended as I was commending her to the grace of God. As assured do I feel of her blessedness, yea, as confident that she is now with the God for whom she gave up so much, as I could be were an angel to bring to me tidings of her mingling with the choir above. To her, death was indeed unspeakable gain. But what a loss have I sustained!
Now alone, Irving Hetherington continued on to Australia and became the first evangelical minister in Singleton, New South Wales. It was a district fifty miles long by thirty miles wide. For several years he also was the superintendent of the area’s school. Combined with these responsibilities he made weekly treks in all weather to settler’s houses to serve both them and their convict servants, doing much of his studying and sermon preparations on horseback. After nine years he was called as the minister of Scott’s Church in Melbourne, where he preached until just before his death in 1875.
Have you ever lost a loved one? If it hasn’t happened yet, it will in the future. When our loved ones have given their allegiance to Jesus, we can know that they are in God’s presence. If you have loved ones who are not yet on the way to heaven, share with them that Jesus is the way.
Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6
Author’s of the Article Above: Mike and Sharon Rusten are not only marriage and business partners; they also share a love for history. Mike studied at Princeton (B.A.), the University of Minnesota (M.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Th.M.), and New York University (Ph.D.). Sharon studied at Beaver College, Lake Forest College, and the University of Minnesota (B.A.), and together with Mike has attended the American Institute of Holy Land Studies (now Jerusalem University College). The Rustens have two grown children and live in Minnetonka, Minnesota. This article was adapted from the May 4th entry in their wonderful book The One Year Book of Christian History, Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2003.