Category Archives: Reformers

The Psalms: An Anatomy of All the Parts of the Soul

I have been accustomed to call this book (Psalms), I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.  Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.  The other parts of Scripture contain the commandments which God enjoined his servants to announce to us.  But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us as speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particular, in order that none of the many infirmities to which we abound, may remain concealed.  It is certainly a rare and singular advantage, when all lurking places are discovered, and the heart is brought into the light, purged from that most baneful infection, hypocrisy.  In short, as calling upon God is one of the principal means of securing our safety, and as a better and more unerring rule for guiding us in this exercise cannot be found elsewhere than in the Psalms, it follows, that in proportion to the proficiency which a man shall have attained in understanding them, will be his knowledge of the most important part of celestial doctrine.  Genuine and earnest prayer proceeds first from a sense of need, and next, from faith in the promises of God.  it is by perusing these inspired compositions, that men will be most effectually awakened to a sense of their maladies, and, at the same time, instructed in seeking remedies for their cure.  In a word, whatever may serve to encourage us when we are about to pray to God, is taught us in this book.  And not only are the promises of God presented to us in it, but oftentimes there is exhibited to us one standing, as it were, amidst the invitations of God on the one hand, and the impediments of the flesh on the other, girding and preparing himself for prayer: thus teaching us, if at any time we are agitated with a variety of doubts, to resist and fight against them, until the soul, freed and disentangled from all these impediments, rise up to God; and not only so, but even when in the midst of doubts, fears, and apprehensions, let us put forth our efforts in prayer, until we experience some consolation which may calm and bring contentment to our minds.  Although distrust may shut the gate against our prayers, yet we must not allow ourselves to give way, whenever our hearts waver or are agitated with inquietude, but must persevere until faith finally come forth victorious from these conflicts. In many places we may perceive the exercise of the servants of God in prayer so fluctuating, that they are almost overwhelmed by the alternate hope of success and apprehension of failure, and gain the prize only by strenuous exertions. We see on the one hand, the flesh manifesting its infirmity; and on the other, faith putting forth its power; and if it is not so valiant and courageous as might be desired, it is at least prepared to fight until by degrees it acquire perfect strength. But as those things which serve to teach us the true method of praying aright will be found scattered through the whole of this Commentary, I will not now stop to treat of topics which it will be necessary afterwards to repeat, nor detain my readers from proceeding to the work itself. Only it appeared to me to be requisite to show in passing, that this book makes known to us this privilege, which is desirable above all others — that not only is there opened up to us familiar access to God, but also that we have permission and freedom granted us to lay open before him our infirmities which we would be ashamed to confess before men.

John Calvin (1509-64), The Author’s Preface, Joshua. Psalms 1-35, xxxvi-xxxvii

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Filed under Anthropology, Applied Theology, Christian Living, Church History, Classics, Commentary, God, Literature, Poetry, Prayer, Psalms, Reformers, Sermon Prep, The Word of God, Theology, Worship

The Word is Sterile Unless Spoken

luther-preachesThe Reformation gave centrality to the sermon.  The pulpit was higher than the altar, for Luther held that salvation is through the Word and without the Word the elements are devoid of sacramental quality, but the Word is sterile unless it is spoken.  All of this is not to say that the Reformation invented preaching.  In the century preceding Luther, for the single province of Westphailia ten thousand sermons are in print, and though they are extant only in Latin they were delivered in German.  But the Reformation did exalt the sermon…  The reformers at Wittenberg undertook an extensive campaign of religious instruction through the sermon.  There were three public services on Sunday: from five to six in the morning on the Pauline epistles, from nine to ten on the Gospels, and in the afternoon at a variable hour on a continuation of the theme of the morning or on the catechism.  The church was not locking during the week, but on Mondays and Tuesdays there were sermons on the catechism, Wednesday on the Gospel of Matthew, Thursdays and Fridays on the apostolic letters, and Saturday evening on John’s Gospel.  No one man carried this entire load.  There was a staff of the clergy, but Luther’s share was prodigious.  Including family devotions he spoke often four times on Sundays and quarterly undertook a two-week series four days a week on the catechism.  The sum of his extant sermons is 2,300.  The highest count is for the year 1528, for which there are 195 sermons distributed over 145 days.

His pre-eminence in the pulpit derives in part from the earnestness with which he regarded the preaching office.  The task of the minister is to expound the Word, in which alone are to be found healing for life’s hurts and the balm of eternal blessedness.  The preacher must die daily through concern lest he lead his flock astray.  Sometimes from the pulpit Luther confessed that gladly like the priest and the Levite would he pass by on the other side.  But Luther was constantly repeating to himself the advice which he gave to a discouraged preacher who complained that preaching was a burden, his sermons were always short, and he might better have stayed in his former profession.  Luther said to him:

If Peter and Paul were here, they would scold you because you wish right off to be as accomplished as they.  Crawling is something, even if one is unable to walk.  Do your best.  If you cannot preach an hour, then preach half an hour or a quarter of an hour.  Do not try to imitate other people.  Center on the shortest and simplest points, which are the very heart of the matter, and leave the rest to God.  Look solely to his honor and not to applause.  Pray that God will give you a mouth and to your audience ears.  I can tell you that preaching is not a work of man.  Although I am old [he was forty-eight] and experienced, I am afraid every time I have to preach.  You will most certainly find out three things: first, you will have prepared your sermon as diligently as you know how, and it will slip through your fingers like water; second, you may abandon your outline and God will give you grace.  You will preach your very best.  The audience will be pleased, but you won’t.  And thirdly, when you have been unable in advance to pull anything together, you will preach acceptably both to your hearers and to yourself.  So pray to God and leave all the rest to him.

Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, 272-74 (1995 Meridian ed.).

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The Greatest Good in Married Life: Raising Kids to Know & Serve God

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Therefore God has also most richly blessed this estate above all others, and, in addition has bestowed on it andwrapped up in it everything in the world, to the end that this estate might be well and richly provided for. Married life is therefore no jest or presumption; but it is an excellent thing and a matter of divine seriousness. For it is of the highest importance to Him that persons be raised who may serve the world and promote the knowledge of God, godly living, and all virtues, to fight against wickedness and the devil.

Martin Luther (1483-1546), The Large Catechism

But the greatest good in married life, that which makes all suffering and labour worth while, is that God grants offspring and commands that they be brought up to worship and serve him. In all the world this is the noblest and most precious work, because to God there can be nothing dearer than the salvation of souls. Now since we are all duty bound to suffer death, if need be, that we might bring a single soul to God, you can see how rich the estate of marriage is in good works. God has entrusted to its bosom souls begotten of its own body, on whom it can lavish all manner of Christian works. Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel. In short, there is no greater or nobler authority on earth than that of parents over their children, for this authority is both spiritual and temporal. whoever teaches the gospel to another is truly his apostle and bishop. Mitre and staff and great estates indeed produce idols, but teaching the gospel produces apostles and bishops. See therefore how good and great is God’s work and ordinance!

Luther, Sermon on Married Life

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Faith is… (Repost)

Faith is not the human notion and dream that some people call faith. When they see that no improvement of life and no good works follow – although they can hear and say much about faith – they fall into the error of saying, “Faith is not enough; one must do works in order to be righteous and be saved.” This is due to the fact that when they hear the Gospel, they get busy and by their own powers create an idea in their heart which says, “I believe”; they take this then to be a true faith. But it is a human figment and idea that never reaches the depths of the heart, nothing comes of it either, and no improvement follows.

Faith, however, is a divine work in us, which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, (John 1:12-13; 3). It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith! It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures. And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everyone, out of love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace. Thus it is as impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers who imagine themselves wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools. Pray God that He may work faith in you. Otherwise you will surely remain forever without faith, regardless of what you may think or do.

Martin Luther (1483-1546), “Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans,” in Faith and Freedom: An Invitation to the Writings of Martin Luther, 94-95.

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How to Mortify Sin (Repost)

Determine that you will, everyday and in every duty abolish and destroy this ruling principle of sin.  it will not die unless it is gradually and constantly weakened.  Spare it, and it heals its wounds and recovers its strength.  Negligence allows sin to regain such power that we may never recover our former state as long as we live.

We are continually to watch out for the rising up of this ruling principle of sin and immediately subdue it.  This is to be done in all that we are and do.  We are to be watchful in our behaviour to others, watchful when we are alone, watchful when in trouble or joy.  We are to be particularly watchful in the use of our pleasure times and in temptations.

Determine that you will no longer serve sin  (Rom. 6:6).  See it as the worst service of which a rational creature is capable.  If you serve sin it will bring you to a dreadful end.  Determine that though sin remains in you, yet you will not serve it.  Remember, if the ‘old ma’ is not crucified with Christ, you are still a servant of sin, whatever you might think of yourself.

Realise that it is no easy task to mortify sin.  Sin is a powerful and dreadful enemy.  There is no living thing that will not do everything in its power to save its life.  So sin also will fight to save its life.  If sin is not diligently hunted down and dealt with by holy violence, it will escape all our attempts at killing it.  It is a great mistake to think that we can at any time rest from this duty.  The ruling principle of sin to be slain is in us, and so has hold of all our faculties.  Sin cannot be killed without a sense of pain and trouble.  So Christ compared it to ‘cutting of the right hand’ and ‘plucking out the right eye’.  The battle is not against any particular lust but against all sinful lusts which war against the soul.

Mortification arising from convictions of the law leads only to dealing with particular sins, and always proves fruitless.  True mortifying of sin deals with the entire body of sin.  It goes tot the heart of the matter and lays the axe to the root of the tree.  This is the mortification which the Holy Spirit drives the believer to do.

Mortification of particular sins arises from a guilty conscience.  But mortification arising from gospel principles deals with the whole body of sin in its opposition to the renewing of the image of God in us.

John Owen (1616-83), The Holy Spirit, 167-69.

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Sovereignty and Reasons for Prayer

But some one will say, Does God not know without a monitor both what our difficulties are, and what is meet for our interest, so that it seems in some measure superfluous to solicit him by our prayers, as if he were winking, or even sleeping, until aroused by the sound of our voice? Those who argue thus attend not to the end for which the Lord taught us to pray. It was not so much for his sake as for ours. He wills indeed, as is just, that due honour be paid him by acknowledging that all which men desire or feel to be useful, and pray to obtain, is derived from him. But even the benefit of the homage which we thus pay him redounds to ourselves. Hence the holy patriarchs, the more confidently they proclaimed the mercies of God to themselves and others felt the stronger incitement to prayer. It will be sufficient to refer to the example of Elijah, who being assured of the purpose of God had good ground for the promise of rain which he gives to Ahab, and yet prays anxiously upon his knees, and sends his servant seven times to inquire (1 Kings 18:42); not that he discredits the oracle, but because he knows it to be his duty to lay his desires before God, lest his faith should become drowsy or torpid.

Wherefore, although it is true that while we are listless or insensible to our wretchedness, he wakes and watches for use and sometimes even assists us unasked; it is very much for our interest to be constantly supplicating him; first, that our heart may always be inflamed with a serious and ardent desire of seeking, loving and serving him, while we accustom ourselves to have recourse to him as a sacred anchor in every necessity; secondly, that no desires, no longing whatever, of which we are ashamed to make him the witness, may enter our minds, while we learn to place all our wishes in his sight, and thus pour out our heart before him; and, thirdly, that we may be prepared to receive all his benefits with true gratitude and thanksgiving, while our prayers remind us that they proceed from his hand. Fourthly, moreover, having obtained what we asked, being persuaded that he has answered our prayers, we are led to long more earnestly for his favour. And fifthly, at the same time have greater pleasure in welcoming the blessings which we perceive to have been obtained by our prayers. Lastly, use and experience confirm the thought of his providence in our minds in a manner adapted to our weakness, when we understand that he not only promises that he will never fail us, and spontaneously gives us access to approach him in every time of need, but has his hand always stretched out to assist his people, not amusing them with words, but proving himself to be a present aid.

For these reasons, though our most merciful Father never slumbers nor sleeps, he very often seems to do so, that thus he may exercise us, when we might otherwise be listless and slothful, in asking, entreating, and earnestly beseeching him to our great good.

It is very absurd, therefore, to dissuade men from prayer, by pretending that Divine Providence, which is always watching over the government of the universes is in vain importuned by our supplications, when, on the contrary, the Lord himself declares, that he is “nigh unto all that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth” (Ps. 145:18). No better is the frivolous allegation of others, that it is superfluous to pray for things which the Lord is ready of his own accord to bestow; since it is his pleasure that those very things which flow from his spontaneous liberality should be acknowledged as conceded to our prayers. This is testified by that memorable sentence in the psalms to which many others corresponds: “The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry,” (Ps. 34:15). This passage, while extolling the care which Divine Providence spontaneously exercises over the safety of believers, omits not the exercise of faith by which the mind is aroused from sloth. The eyes of God are awake to assist the blind in their necessity, but he is likewise pleased to listen to our groans, that he may give us the better proof of his love. And thus both things are true, “He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep,” (Ps. 121:4); and yet whenever he sees us dumb and torpid, he withdraws as if he had forgotten us.

John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.20.3

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How to Mortify Sin

Determine that you will, everyday and in every duty abolish and destroy this ruling principle of sin.  it will not die unless it is gradually and constantly weakened.  Spare it, and it heals its wounds and recovers its strength.  Negligence allows sin to regain such power that we may never recover our former state as long as we live.

We are continually to watch out for the rising up of this ruling principle of sin and immediately subdue it.  This is to be done in all that we are and do.  We are to be watchful in our behaviour to others, watchful when we are alone, watchful when in trouble or joy.  We are to be particularly watchful in the use of our pleasure times and in temptations.

Determine that you will no longer serve sin  (Rom. 6:6).  See it as the worst service of which a rational creature is capable.  If you serve sin it will bring you to a dreadful end.  Determine that though sin remains in you, yet you will not serve it.  Remember, if the ‘old ma’ is not crucified with Christ, you are still a servant of sin, whatever you might think of yourself.

Realise that it is no easy task to mortify sin.  Sin is a powerful and dreadful enemy.  There is no living thing that will not do everything in its power to save its life.  So sin also will fight to save its life.  If sin is not diligently hunted down and dealt with by holy violence, it will escape all our attempts at killing it.  It is a great mistake to think that we can at any time rest from this duty.  The ruling principle of sin to be slain is in us, and so has hold of all our faculties.  Sin cannot be killed without a sense of pain and trouble.  So Christ compared it to ‘cutting of the right hand’ and ‘plucking out the right eye’.  The battle is not against any particular lust but against all sinful lusts which war against the soul.

Mortification arising from convictions of the law leads only to dealing with particular sins, and always proves fruitless.  True mortifying of sin deals with the entire body of sin.  It goes tot the heart of the matter and lays the axe to the root of the tree.  This is the mortification which the Holy Spirit drives the believer to do.

Mortification of particular sins arises from a guilty conscience.  But mortification arising from gospel principles deals with the whole body of sin in its opposition to the renewing of the image of God in us.

John Owen (1616-83), The Holy Spirit, 167-69.

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