The Old Preacher

Viewing the World through God's Word

Author: Allan Babcock (page 2 of 66)

Incomprehensibility and No Excuse

Excuse:  attempt to escape blame.   In Romans 10:14-21 Paul addresses Israel’s possible excuses for not believing in Jesus as Messiah.  Incomprehensibility:  the doctrine that finite humans are unable to fully understand God.  I’ll explain its place in this text below.

Paul ended his previous paragraph with this quote from Joel 2:32–“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (10:13).

Paul begins his next paragraph by raising rhetorical questions, which Israel might use for not calling on the name of the Lord (Jesus).


“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (10:14,15).

 If no one was sent and no one proclaimed, so that no one heard and could not believe and call, excuses would be valid.  However, in the next two verses Paul implies the message has rung out, but did not meet with faith.

“But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (10:16,17).

“Submit” (as in 10:3) might be a better translation of hupopaso, since “obey” often connotes the idea of good works. In any case, Paul tells the church at Rome, that the good new has been proclaimed, but with mixed results.

So faith (obedience, submission) comes from what is heard through the word of Christ.  Charles Spurgeon said . . .

“Faith cannot be washed into us by immersion, nor sprinkled upon us in christening; it is not to be poured into us from a chalice, nor generated in us by a consecrated piece of bread. There is no magic about it; it comes by hearing the word of God, and by that way only.”

Paul now returns to Israel’s unbelief in the promised Messiah.  And, despite God choosing recipients of his mercy, lays the blame for unbelief at Israel’s feet . . .

“But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have; for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’ Again I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, ‘I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.’ Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.’ But of Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people’” (10:18-21).

 Israel heard.  Paul quotes from Psalm 19, where God’s existence is heard throughout all creation. Paul here means that the gospel is being proclaimed “everywhere”, and Israel has heard it.

But did they not understand it?  Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:31 where the Lord through Moses predicts he will make Israel jealously angry “with a foolish nation.”  He’s preparing for what he will say about Gentiles in chapter 10.

Then he quotes the Lord speaking through Isaiah (Isaiah 65:1)—the Lord will be found by those not looking for him (Gentiles).

Finally he refers to Isaiah 65:2. The Lord had been patient and tolerant with Israel, but Israel remained “disobedient and contrary”.

So, Israel is without excuse.  The nation has had more than enough knowledge in order to believe.  But, despite the Lord’s pleas, she is “a disobedient and contrary people.”  No excuse.  We have none either, if we refuse to act in faith on what we know.


But how can national Israel be liable for rejecting the Messiah, if God hadn’t chosen her to believe?  The question nags at me.  I know I can never fully understand even one single thing about God.  He is incomprehensible.  But this seems totally illogical.

Nor is this just a matter of “theology”.  I don’t understand God’s ways with my health.  Why primary lateral sclerosis?  Why, on top of that (literally), melanoma?  I’m reminded of Scripture texts, such as . . .

“Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom” (Psalm 145:3).

“Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure” (Psalm 147:5).

“Such knowledge (of God) is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (Psalm 139:6).

When it comes to fully understanding God’s ways, I have only two options:  (1) reject his Word as irrational, or (2) humble myself before him and trust though I don’t understand.

I chose #2 and will echo these words . . .

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’
‘Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever. Amen.
–Romans 11:33-36





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Being Renewed

“Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16b). 

I’ve pondered this verse, because my outer nature is wasting away.  The Greek, diathiero, is used of a moth slowly consuming clothing (Luke 12:33).  And here of my body becoming increasingly weak.  I loathe it, of course. It always rages in my mind.  I’m facing death, however far off it may be.  And the thought of leaving my beloved Lois and my family behind makes me sob with sorrow.

But I want to think about my “inner nature”.  Paul says it is “being renewed day by day.”  The Greek is anakaino-o, referring to causing something to be made new and better.

Paul uses it in Romans 12:2—“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Again in Colossians 3:9.10—”Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”  And in Ephesians 4:22,23—”You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds . . . “

In each case “renewed” is passive.  Being made new and better on the inside is something done to us.  One can argue that we are not passive, that we participate—and I won’t disagree.  But Paul implies that the force doing it is greater than both our participation and the wasting away of our outer nature.

“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17,18).

We’re familiar with Paul’s affliction, most of it the result of his preaching the gospel (both persecution and travel-dangers), some of it physical illness.  To call it “light” seems a gross understatement; but he’s comparing it with eternal glory (“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us”—Romans 8:18).

What’s incredible about his statement here is this:  light, momentary affliction is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory”.  The Greek is katergaomy—“producing, achieving, accomplishing”.

God the Holy Spirit is actually using our affliction to produce for us an exceedingly great eternal weight of glory.

Does Paul mean the greater the affliction the greater the weight of glory?  That’s unclear.  But this much is certain:  not one hour of affliction is to be wasted;  God will use all of it in the renewing process toward glory.

And this production-process is occurring right now!  “ . . . our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”  

“ . . . . while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen . . . “The Greek says only, “looking not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.”  Paul isn’t saying our looking makes the inner renewal happen, but that the inner renewal makes the looking happen.  Day by day the Holy Spirit is turning my eyes off my outer wasting away and onto my inner renewal working toward an eternal weight of glory.

Of course, I can (and do at times) resist.  He tenderly takes my chin and lifts my head toward the unseen—and I force my eyes back.  Down instead of up.  Outer instead of inner.  Seen instead of unseen.  Light, momentary affliction instead of eternal glory.

Nevertheless, the inner renewal process continues unabated . “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit”  (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Of course, it’s to my benefit to look at “the things which are not seen”.  Fixing my eyes on my weakening body is depressing, even frightening.  But fixing my eyes on inner renewal is hopeful, even comforting and joyful.

So, it’s to that, by God’s grace, I will look.  Not so much to the “eternal weight of glory”.  For that is more than I can see, beyond what my mind can take in.  Even as my body wastes away a bit more, I will look today to my “inner nature being renewed”. I can’t really grasp that either.  But to know God is actually at work in me, creating something new and better–well, that’s exciting and full-of-wonder.

How great is God’s grace!  Even while I’m complaining about my body growing weaker, he’s making me new and better on the inside.  And someday that process will climax in an “explosion” of an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure!

So, old man, smile!  You’re being made new right now!









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Christ–End of the Law

God’s promises are extraordinary.  Take just two from promise-rich Romans 8. The glory about to be revealed to us will be incomparably greater than present sufferings (8:18).  Nothing in all creation can ever separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord (8:38,39).

But suppose God’s word had failed before?  How could we trust his promises to us now?

This is what makes Romans 9-11 so important to us.  And why we must understand God’s ways, as much as humanly possible.

Remember the problem Paul addresses in those chapters:  Israel, upon whom God lavished privilege after privilege (all pointing to the Messiah), rejected the Messiah and were, consequently, cut off from him.

What happened to all those promises?  Israel didn’t get what God had promised!  Had God’s word to Israel failed?  “By no means!” shouts Paul.  Because “It is through Isaac that [Abraham’s] descendants shall be named . . . it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise . . . “ (9:7,8).  That means that within national Israel lived true Israel.  To them God made those promises.  And to them God was keeping them.  God chose to “ . . . have mercy on whom [he would] have mercy” (9:15).  And that includes Gentiles!  Good for us, huh?

“Well then, what shall we say about these things? Just this: The Gentiles have been made right with God by faith, even though they were not seeking him. But the Jews, who tried so hard to get right with God by keeping the law, never succeeded.  Why not? Because they were trying to get right with God by keeping the law and being good instead of by depending on faith. They stumbled over the great rock in their path. God warned them of this in the Scriptures (Isa. 28:16) when he said, ‘I am placing a stone in Jerusalem that causes people to stumble, and a rock that makes them fall. But anyone who believes in him will not be disappointed’” (9:30-33, New Living Translation).

Gentiles, not seeking God, have been made right with God by faith.  Jews, who tried hard to get right with God by keeping law, failed.  Why?  Because they didn’t seek the righteousness that comes by faith.  So they “stumbled” over Jesus Messiah—the one to whom God’s promises pointed and the one in whom Abraham’s line through Isaac culminated.  He was crucified—crucified!—in abject weakness as the sacrifice for their (and our) sins.  But they thought they didn’t need a Savior. They were building their own righteousness by trying to keep God’s laws. So, they stumbled and fell in unbelief. 

Yet, Paul still longs for their salvation and admires their zeal, even though it’s enthusiasm without true knowledge of how to be right with God . . .

“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness” (10:1-3).

. . . . submitted”—interesting word-choice.  He could have written “received God’s righteousness”.  But he wrote “submitted”, maybe because receiving God’s righteousness requires humility, a confession that, no matter how hard we try, we cannot keep God’s law and be declared righteous.

“For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (10:4).

“ . . . end” is English for the Greek telos. Three meanings are possible.  Christ is the goal of the law—the One to whom the law is intended to bring us (Galatians 3:23-26).  Christ is the termination of the law—the One who ends the Law Covenant and ushers in the Covenant of Grace (Romans 6:4; 7:4).

But this is best:  Christ is the fulfillment of the law (“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill”–Matthew 5:17).  Jesus perfectly obeyed every law of the Father.  Therefore, he can impute his righteousness “for everyone who believes”. 

This leads Paul to contrast “the righteousness that comes from law” with that which comes by faith in Christ.

“Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that ‘the person who does these things will live by them.’ But the righteousness that comes from faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:5-9).

Pastor (Bridgeway Church, Oklahoma City) Sam Storms comments . . .

“Paul’s point seems to be that even the Law itself proclaimed salvation by faith and not by works. Salvation is not a matter of searching high and low or of working to win God’s favor. God has already made provision for us in Christ Jesus. We do not have to scale the heights of heaven to procure it: Christ Jesus has already come down from heaven with it. We do not have to descend into the depths to bring it up: Christ Jesus has descended into death and has been raised on our behalf. In other words, salvation is not a matter of performing some magnificent physical deed. It is already here, present and available. All one need do is believe.”

Righteousness by law-keeping requires actually doing all the law’s commands.  I’m not certain exactly what Paul means by citing Deuteronomy 30:11-14.  But this much is clear:  righteousness by faith doesn’t demand herculean effort on our part.  Still citing Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Paul writes “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart”—then identifies that word as “the word of faith that we proclaim”.

We’re saved by confessing “the word of faith””.  One, that “Jesus is Lord”.  Two, believing in our heart that “God raised him from the dead”.

When we proclaim “Jesus is Lord”, we’re acknowledging that he is God (the Son), the one who possesses absolute sovereign authority over everything and everyone. When we proclaim “God raised him from the dead”, we’re declaring that he conquered death and that his death was accepted by God as sufficient payment for all our sins.

“For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’” (10:10-13).

This is the mercy God sovereignly lavishes on those he chooses.  A mercy that results in salvation from his rightful wrath and in righteousness, not by our efforts at being good, but by believing God’s Word is true.

Paul bolsters his argument with two Scriptures.  The first, from Isaiah 28:16, reminds us that God will do everything he said he would.  We won’t be put to shame for trusting him.  The second, from Joel 2:32, reminds us that we must express our faith by calling on him, and “all who call on him” reminds us that the “saved” will be people from every “tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

* * *

“God wants us to be good.”  That’s what most people think.  But how can we know if we’re good enough?  That’s why “Christ is the end of the law” is such good news.  He says to everyone (including you and me) who try so hard to be good by keeping his laws . . .

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30, NRS).

“Christ is the end of the law”–
the end of our trying to be good enough,
the end where we can rest in his righteousness,
and receive his glorious promises.






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Angry at God?

Tuesday I lay on a narrow strip of  table inside a PET Scan machine.  In I slid.   I was in this tube because last week the dermatologist’s nurse phoned with my biopsy result:  “Malignant melanoma”.

Not what I wanted to hear. I’ve had a spot on my bald head for years.  A decade and a-half ago, another dermatologist told me it was an “age spot”.  In the last month, a small bump formed. The dermatologist removed it for biopsy.  Melanoma.

Besides the extent of cancer (which we won’t know until Monday), the PET Scan tested my endurance.  Ninety minutes.  In a tube with my nose almost touching the top.  Lying still.  Every five minutes the table slid out–six inches.  I counted minutes.  Prayed.  Tried to sleep (nope).  Fantasized about food (only 2 eggs at six a.m. and it was noon).  Thankfully I was in feet-first, so my head escaped first.  Then came a brief (thankfully) CT Scan.

The PET Scan will show the cancer’s extent.  At this point, to me, all outcomes seem bad.  Only if the test shows nothing (because the Lord drove out the caner), will it be good.

But, why was I on that table  at all?  I’m a child of the King!

Honestly?  Some days I feel like I’m left to suffer like an orphan.

To make matters worse, “cancer” has suddenly shown up everywhere–in books, on TV shows, on the Internet and in conversations.  For example, among the books I’m reading is, Same Kind of Different as Me. It’s  an entertaining read until the husband’s wife dies of cancer at a young age.  After the funeral and burial, he writes . . .

“My fear gave way to anger, and I had plenty to go around.  But as I fired arrows of blame—at the doctors, the pharmaceutical industry, cancer researchers–clearly the bull’s eye was God.  It was he who ripped a gaping and irreparable hole in my heart. Without a gun or mask he robbed me of my wife and stole my children’s mother and my grandchildren’s grandmother.  I had trusted him, and he failed me.

“How do you forgive that?” (p. 203).

I identified.  I’ve found anger rising in me.   After all, isn’t Primary Lateral Sclerosis, with all its rotten symptoms, enough?  Now melanoma.  Like husband, Ron, “I had trusted [God], and he failed me.”  Angry?  I’m ashamed to admit it.

Some say it’s a sin, like John Piper . . .

“ . . . being angry at God is never right. It is wrong – always wrong – to disapprove of God for what he does and permits. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25). It is arrogant for finite, sinful creatures to disapprove of God for what he does and permits. We may weep over the pain. We may be angry at sin and Satan. But God does only what is right. “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments” (Revelation 16:7).

I add to that Paul’s rebuke quoted in my last blog . . .

“But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?'” {20 Isaiah 29:16; 45:9}

Okay.  Disapproving of “what God does and permits “, “talking back to God”,  is arrogant.  But what about my feelings?  Should I pretend I’m content when I’m shaking my fist?  And what about the psalmists?  I always assumed their “why” questions came from desperation.  But, couldn’t they be expressing anger?

“Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1).

“How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? How long will my enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalm 13:1,2).

“Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?” (Psalm 44:23,24).

“Why have you rejected us forever, O God? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture?” (Psalm 74:1).

“Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88:14).

Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe the psalmists are  just despondent.  Maybe the psalms’ contexts rule out anger.  It’s still hard for me to think that, when  boldly expressing emotions in suffering,  these psalmists don’t have a bit of anger mixed in.

In any case, there are days when my anger rises.  Piper tells me what to do with it . . .

“But if we do experience the sinful emotion of anger at God, what then? Shall we add the sin of hypocrisy to the sin of anger? No. If we feel it, we should confess it to God. He knows it anyway. He sees our hearts. If anger at God is in our heart, we may as well tell him so, and then tell him we are sorry, and ask him to help us put it away by faith in his goodness and wisdom.”

So:  that’s what I’ve got to do.  Tell God I’m angry at him for allowing another affliction.  Then tell him I’m sorry and ask his help to get rid of anger by faith in his goodness and wisdom

By the way, Tuesday, for this old body, was a wearying one.  But I had my beautiful wife and daughter, Missy, with me.  They brought smiles and laughter and support.  They helped get me into and out of our truck, out of my wheelchair and onto the narrow PET Scan table, off that and back into my wheelchair,  out onto the CT Scan table and back  into my wheelchair, and finally out of the chair and into the house!  A herculean task when I have no strength in my legs!

And the Holy Spirit’s presence surrounded me though it all.

Plus, my stomach outweighed (no pun intended) my weariness:  after the test ordeal, we stopped at Cracker Barrel for a meal I long-wanted–“Momma’s French Toast Breakfast.”  We often stopped at a Cracker Barrel on vacation trips; so it brought back warm memories (and momentarily alleviated my anger).  But this prayer is still needed . . .

“Lord, cancer is too much on top of PLS.  How could you allow it?  I confess I’m angry..  And I’m sorry for it.  Please help me get rid of it by faith in your goodness and wisdom, which has always blessed my life.  Amen.”





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Who Are You to Criticize God?

I see a guy shaking his fist toward heaven.  He’s angry–picking a fight with God.  Who does this little man think he is?  Paul’s words in Romans 9:14-29 hit him like a stomach punch.

 “What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!” (9:14)

What are we to say to what?  To Paul’s argument that God’s word hadn’t failed, when Israel rejected her long-promised Messiah and was “cut off”.  Within national Israel lived true Israel, chosen by God.  And true Israel believed (see Romans 9:1-13).

Well: “Is there injustice on God’s part?”  If God chooses, is that unfair to the unchosen?  (See my fist-shaking.)  In Genesis 21:12, Abraham is distressed because Sarah’s insisted he send Hagar and his son by her (Ishmael) away.  The LORD says, “Don’t be . . . for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you.”  Paul cites that incident when explaining “it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise” (9:8) as made to Abraham (“I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you”—Genesis 17:6,7).

So:  By choosing Isaac over Ishmael, and later Jacob over Esau, by giving none a say in the matter, was God being unfair?

Paul answers emphatically: “may genoito”—“May it never be!” (NSV); “Out of the question!” (NJB).

But why is God choosing not unfair?  Why should some be chosen for God’s covenant blessings and others not?  It’s imperative to remember Paul’s dark description of humanity in 1:18-3:20. We’re all under sin.  We’ve all turned away from God.  None of us seeks God.  We’re all Adam’s children—condemned sinners (5:12-21).  Therefore, none of us merits anything from God.

Two other truths to remember.  One, God is absolutely holy.  Sin can’t be tolerated in his presence.  Two, God is committed to upholding his glory.  His name must be exalted.

With that in mind, read Paul’s explanation of why God’s choosing isn’t unjust . . .

“For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. ’So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (9:15,16).

“Mercy” implies no merit.  All are guilty; but the LORD tells Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy . . . “  In Exodus 33:18, Moses begs the LORD, “Show me your glory . . . “  In 33:19, the LORD replies “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’, and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.”

John Piper explains . . .

“since God’s righteousness consists basically in his acting unswervingly for his own glory, and since his glory consists basically in his sovereign freedom in the bestowal and withholding of mercy, there is no unrighteousness with God (Rom. 9:11f.). On the contrary, he must pursue his ‘electing purpose’ apart from man’s ‘willing and running,’ for only in his sovereign, free bestowal of mercy on whomever he wills is God acting out of a full allegiance to his name and esteem for his glory.”.

Not only his words to Moses, but to Pharaoh . . .

“For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’  So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses” (9:17,18).

Whoever the Pharaoh was during Moses’ days (scholars disagree), the LORD raised him to rule and spared his life through the plagues to display God’s power, so the name of the LORD might “be proclaimed in all the earth.” 

In verse 18, Paul draws a conclusion  that expands God’s choosing beyond Israel to include “whomever”—“he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens (in unbelief) the heart of whomever he chooses.”

A bit troubling? No problem if the Lord chooses Jacob over Esau and hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  But “whomever”?  If anyone (“whomever”) is to receive God’s mercy in Christ, God must first choose him to receive mercy in Christ.  Paul makes this explicit in Ephesians 1:3-6 . . .

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”

One view (“Arminianism”, early 17th century) argues that God chooses based on his foreknowledge of those who would, of their own free will, believe.

Paul’s next words, though, seem to argue for God’s sovereign choice . . .

“You will say to me then, ‘Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?” (9:19-21).

The anticipated objection clearly implies that God makes a man as he wills, not that God foreknows how he will respond, then chooses him accordingly.  However, that raises a real objection—if God leaves some of us in unbelief, how can he blame us for not believing?

Paul replies sharply.  “Who are you . . . to argue with God?” A mere man has no right to criticize God!  Quoting from Isaiah 29:16 and 45:9, Paul says God is like a potter.  No back-talk from a clay lump! The potter can make of it whatever he wants.

“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory — including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (9:22-24).

John Piper comments . . .

“Romans 9:22,23 . . . is probably the closest the Bible ever comes to offering us a justification of the mysterious ways of God with man . . . God tolerated, as it were, a tenfold recalcitrance from Pharaoh and sustained him alive instead of bringing destructive judgment on him right away. He did this even though he himself had hardened Pharaoh and destined him for destruction . . . [This] answers . . . why God sustains and tolerates vessels of wrath.  Evidently, by doing this, God’s sovereign power and terrible wrath can be demonstrated even more vividly than if God were to bring down final judgment on vessels of wrath at the very outset of their disobedience. . . .The acts of God come forth . . . from a unified, sovereign purpose.  They cohere to achieve one great end—the magnification of God’s great glory for the eternal enjoyment of his chosen people” (The Justification of God, p. 187-189).

This, writes Paul, not only explains God’s dealings with Pharaoh, but God’s dealings with “the objects of mercy . . . including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles.”

Paul now cites two prophets.  Their words reveal God showing mercy to his chosen ones but executing his sentence against others . . .

“As indeed he says in Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people,” and her who was not beloved I will call “beloved.”’ And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they shall be called children of the living God. And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, ‘Though the number of the children of Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved; for the Lord will execute his sentence on the earth quickly and decisively.’ And as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of hosts had not left survivors to us, we would have fared like Sodom and been made like Gomorrah’” (9:25-29).

Each prophecy foretells God’s mercy.  Mercy on those not God’s people.  Mercy on a remnant of Israel, who would otherwise have suffered Sodom and Gomorrah’s fate.  Which is Paul’s point in this whole passage.  God has mercy on whom he has mercy, because he’s committed to glorifying his name by showing mercy on undeserving sinners.

* * *

It’s pretty hard to argue against “election” (God choosing to have mercy on whom he wants).  Who God chooses is all part of the mystery of God.  But, instead of debating theology or criticizing God for choosing, let’s ask this more pressing, personal question:  “How can I know if I’m chosen or not?

Scripture never answers.  John Piper offers assurance:  “How To Confirm Your Call and Election” (a brief article worth reading)–

Or we can ponder this simple bit of a Puritan prayer in The Valley of Vision . . .

“I need not search to see if I am elect or loved,
for if I turn You will come to me;
Christ has promised me fellowship if I take him,
and the Spirit will pour himself out on me,
abolishing sin and punishment,
assuring me of strength to persevere . . .
I could never have sought my happiness in Your love,
unless You had first loved me.

If we have a heart to go to him, that means he chose and called us first!





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Halloween 2

“The Bible tells us to shun the very appearance of evil.  So why should any Christian get involved in Halloween that glorifies witchcraft and death?”

I received that reply to my Halloween comments yesterday prefacing Dr. Al Mohler’s blog (  ).

I understand this brother’s thoughts.  Indeed, he’s probably in the majority of those who think seriously about the holiday.  Many churches opt to host some kind of get-together for kids to keep them out of the “darkness”.  I respect their convictions, as I do those of this brother who replied to me.

I answered him, in part . . .

“I guess I just refuse to allow evil to take over what can be for my family and me an innocent enjoyment of our childhood. We do nothing that suggests participation in the works of darkness. In a way, we’re light.”

Maybe this debate isn’t worth another blog; but I want to expand my thinking . . .

First, I ask you to read this compelling article.  From it, I take this biblical truth:  the light overcomes the darkness.

Second, I do see the darkness of Halloween, though I think many who dress up in “darkness costumes”, do it innocently, not intentionally participating in anything evil.  Even so, the darkness is real—and magnified by macabre costumes.

In the midst of it, down the street among all the other Halloweeners walks our gang.  (Age has now dwindled our numbers, though.)  We’re angels or soldiers or “good guy” characters.  We don’t fit into the darkness.  In fact, by our appearance and laughter, I hope we stand out as a bit of light.

In my mind, I envision other Christian families, similarly costumed, shedding more light in the darkness.  We can brighten the light by giving our neighbors gospel tracts or saying “God bless you” when we load up on their candy.  (This may be a bit much for kids!)

But, see what I see?  Little points of light shining in the darkness.  “Evil” costumes will always outnumber “good”.  Death and fright will always be “celebrated”.  But our presence can at least show there’s another way.  The True Light has come into the world!  Our little light may not overcome the Halloween darkness.  It may not convict darkness-doers.  But it will shine.  It will show there’s an alternative.

Do we only pray to protect our children from evil or also pray that they’ll be the light of the world (which presupposes being in a dark place)?  Like it or not, we are “the light of the world”.  Gotta let it shine (Matthew 5:14-16).  Gotta pierce the darkness for our Father’s glory

Obviously, this pertains to more than Halloween.  “ . . . let your light shine, so they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).  The world is dark.  Our good works shine like light.

Two postures prevent that.  One, we assume a defensive stand against the world.  It’s evil; we avoid it as much as possible.  The extreme of this is moving to the mountains, huddling up with other like-minded believers, and wait for Jesus to come.

Two, we take the world as it is without any moral judgments.  So, we go to church on Sunday, read our Bibles and pray, but we live no more holy than our upstanding neighbor.  The Sermon On the Mount captivates us, but doesn’t direct our behavior.

Obviously, avoiding the darkness has its place.  But so does shining like light in the darkness.  Each of us is responsible for deciding what when.

But I’m thinking our light will shine brighter if we’re out on the street on Halloween, rather than in our houses with lights off or in our churches with lights on all together out of the darkness.


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Reformation: Martin Luther

May this summary of Luther’s life move us to marvel at what God did through him!   And may it excite our minds and hearts to read the Book that changed his life!  Both would be fitting responses to this 500th commemoration of the Reformation, courtesy of

Here We Stand

Day 31

Martin Luther


Here He Stood

By John Piper

One of the great rediscoveries of the Reformation — especially of Martin Luther — was that the word of God comes to us in the form of a book, the Bible. Luther grasped this powerful fact: God preserves the experience of salvation and holiness from generation to generation by means of a book of revelation, not a bishop in Rome.

The life-giving and life-threatening risk of the Reformation was the rejection of the pope and councils as the infallible, final authority of the church. Luther’s adversary, Sylvester Prierias, wrote, “He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic” (Luther, 193). It followed that Luther would be excluded from the Roman Catholic Church. “What is new in Luther,” Heiko Oberman says, “is the notion of absolute obedience to the Scriptures against any authorities; be they popes or councils” (Luther, 204).

This rediscovery of the word of God above all earthly powers shaped Luther and the entire Reformation. But Luther’s path to that rediscovery was a tortuous one, beginning with a lightning storm at age 21.

Fearful Monk

On July 2, 1505, on the way home from law school, Luther was caught in a thunderstorm and was hurled to the ground by lightning. He cried out, “Help me, St. Anne! I will become a monk.” Fifteen days later, to his father’s dismay, Luther left his legal studies and kept his vow.

He knocked at the gate of the Augustinian hermits in Erfurt and asked the prior to accept him into the order. At 21, he became an Augustinian monk. At his first Mass two years later, Luther was so overwhelmed at the thought of God’s majesty that he almost ran away. The prior persuaded him to continue.

But this incident of fear and trembling would not be an isolated one in Luther’s life. Luther himself would later remember of these years, “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction” (Selections, 12).

Luther would not be married for another twenty years — to Katharina von Bora on June 13, 1525 — which means he lived with sexual temptations as a single man till he was 42. But “in the monastery,” he said, “I did not think about women, money, or possessions; instead my heart trembled and fidgeted about whether God would bestow his grace on me.” His all-consuming longing was to know the happiness of God’s favor. “If I could believe that God was not angry with me,” he said, “I would stand on my head for joy.”

Good News: God’s Righteousness

In 1509, Luther’s beloved superior and counselor and friend, Johannes von Staupitz, allowed Luther to begin teaching the Bible. Three years later, on October 19, 1512, at the age of 28, Luther received his doctor’s degree in theology, and von Staupitz turned over to him the chair in biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg, which Luther held the rest of his life.

As Luther set to work reading, studying, and teaching Scripture from the original languages, his troubled conscience seethed beneath the surface — especially as he confronted the phrase “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:16–17. To Luther, “the righteousness of God” could only mean one thing: God’s righteous punishment of sinners. The phrase was not “gospel” to him; it was a death sentence.

But then, in the work of a moment, all Luther’s hatred for the righteousness of God turned to love. He remembers,

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” . . . And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which [the] merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”

He concludes, “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

Standing on the Book

Luther was not the pastor of the town church in Wittenberg, but he did share the preaching with his pastor friend, Johannes Bugenhagen. The record bears witness to how utterly devoted he was to the preaching of Scripture. For example, in 1522 he preached 117 sermons, the next year 137 sermons. In 1528, he preached almost 200 times, and from 1529 we have 121 sermons. So the average in those four years was one sermon every two-and-a-half days.

Over the next 28 years, Luther would preach thousands of sermons, publish hundreds of pamphlets and books, endure scores of controversies, and counsel innumerable German citizens — all to spread the good news of God’s righteousness to a people trapped in a system of their own merit. Through it all, Luther had one weapon with which to rescue this gospel from being sold in the markets of Wittenberg — Scripture. He drove out the moneychangers — the indulgence sellers — with the whip of the word of God, the Bible.

Luther said with resounding forcefulness in 1545, the year before he died, “Let the man who would hear God speak, read Holy Scripture.” Here alone, in the pages of the Bible, God speaks with final authority. Here alone, decisive authority rests. From here alone, the gift of God’s righteousness comes to hell-bound sinners.

He lived what he urged. He wrote in 1533, “For a number of years I have now annually read through the Bible twice. If the Bible were a large, mighty tree and all its words were little branches, I have tapped at all the branches, eager to know what was there and what it had to offer” (What Luther Says, Vol. 1, 83). Oberman says Luther kept to that practice for at least ten years (Luther, 173). The Bible had come to mean more to Luther than all the fathers and commentators.

Here Luther stood, and here we stand. Not on the pronouncements of popes, or the decisions of councils, or the winds of popular opinion, but on “that word above all earthly powers” — the living and abiding word of God.

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I grew up “dressing up” for Halloween.  (I’m so old I  can’t remember even one costume.) We (my brother and I) knocked on doors so neighbors could fill our bags with candy.  When Lois and I married and had children, we continued the custom with them.  And, so far, they’ve continued with their children.  Innocent fun in non-evil costumes.

Then we began to  hear about the evil of the day.  Mohler examines Halloween’s dark roots below.  He notes that the world has secularized Christmas and Easter–and yet, from the Christian perspective, we celebrate them.  So why should we allow the world to steal the innocent fun of Halloween?  Knowing the world’s take on Halloween is important.  But I say, celebrate the night the right way.  And get as much candy as you can.  (I may dress up like an old curmudgeon in a wheelchair with a wig!)

Old man in wheelchair. Intentional motion blur

Christianity and the Dark Side — What About Halloween?

Over a hundred years ago, the great Dutch theologian Hermann Bavinck predicted that the 20th century would “witness a gigantic conflict of spirits.” His prediction…

Over a hundred years ago, the great Dutch theologian Hermann Bavinck predicted that the 20th century would “witness a gigantic conflict of spirits.” His prediction turned out to be an understatement, and this great conflict continues into the 21st century.

The issue of Halloween presses itself annually upon the Christian conscience. Acutely aware of dangers new and old, many Christian parents choose to withdraw their children from the holiday altogether. Others choose to follow a strategic battle plan for engagement with the holiday. Still others have gone further, seeking to convert Halloween into an evangelistic opportunity. Is Halloween really that significant?

Well, Halloween is a big deal in the marketplace. Halloween is surpassed only by Christmas in terms of economic activity. According to David J. Skal, “Precise figures are difficult to determine, but the annual economic impact of Halloween is now somewhere between 4 billion and 6 billion dollars depending on the number and kinds of industries one includes in the calculations.”

Furthermore, historian Nicholas Rogers claims that “Halloween is currently the second most important party night in North America. In terms of its retail potential, it is second only to Christmas. This commercialism fortifies its significance as a time of public license, a custom-designed opportunity to have a blast. Regardless of its spiritual complications, Halloween is big business.”

Rogers and Skal have each produced books dealing with the origin and significance of Halloween. Nicholas Rogers is author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Professor of History at York University in Canada, Rogers has written a celebration of Halloween as a transgressive holiday that allows the bizarre and elements from the dark side to enter the mainstream. Skal, a specialist on the culture of Hollywood, has written Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween. Skal’s approach is more dispassionate and focused on entertainment, looking at the cultural impact of Halloween on the rise of horror movies and the nation’s fascination with violence.

The pagan roots of Halloween are well documented. The holiday is rooted in the Celtic festival of Samhain, which came at summer’s end. As Rogers explains, “Paired with the feast of Beltane, which celebrated the life-generating powers of the sun, Samhain beckoned to winter and the dark nights ahead.” Scholars dispute whether Samhain was celebrated as a festival of the dead, but the pagan roots of the festival are indisputable. Questions of human and animal sacrifices and various occultic sexual practices continue as issues of debate, but the reality of the celebration as an occultic festival focused on the changing of seasons undoubtedly involved practices pointing to winter as a season of death.

As Rogers comments: “In fact, the pagan origins of Halloween generally flow not from this sacrificial evidence, but from a different set of symbolic practices. These revolve around the notion of Samhain as a festival of the dead and as a time of supernatural intensity heralding the onset of winter.

How should Christians respond to this pagan background? Harold L. Myra of Christianity Today argues that these pagan roots were well known to Christians of the past. “More than a thousand years ago Christians confronted pagan rites appeasing the lord of death and evil spirits. Halloween’s unsavory beginnings preceded Christ’s birth when the druids, in what is now Britain and France, observed the end of summer with sacrifices to the gods. It was the beginning of the Celtic year and they believed Samhain, the lord of death, sent evil spirits abroad to attack humans, who could escape only by assuming disguises and looking like evil spirits themselves.”

Thus, the custom of wearing costumes, especially costumes imitating evil spirits, is rooted in the Celtic pagan culture. As Myra summarizes, “Most of our Halloween practices can be traced back to the old pagan rites and superstitions.”

The complications of Halloween go far beyond its pagan roots, however. In modern culture, Halloween has become not only a commercial holiday, but a season of cultural fascination with evil and the demonic. Even as the society has pressed the limits on issues such as sexuality, the culture’s confrontation with the “dark side” has also pushed far beyond boundaries honored in the past.

As David J. Skal makes clear, the modern concept of Halloween is inseparable from the portrayal of the holiday presented by Hollywood. As Skal comments, “The Halloween machine turns the world upside down. One’s identity can be discarded with impunity. Men dress as women, and vise versa. Authority can be mocked and circumvented, and, most important, graves open and the departed return.”

This is the kind of material that keeps Hollywood in business. “Few holidays have a cinematic potential that equals Halloween’s,” comments Skal. “Visually, the subject is unparalleled, if only considered in terms of costume design and art direction. Dramatically, Halloween’s ancient roots evoke dark and melodramatic themes, ripe for transformation into film’s language of shadow and light.”

But television’s “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (which debuted in 1966) has given way to Hollywood’s “Halloween” series and the rise of violent “slasher” films. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff have been replaced by Michael Myers and Freddy Kruger.

This fascination with the occult comes as America has been sliding into post-Christian secularism. While the courts remove all theistic references from America’s public square, the void is being filled with a pervasive fascination with evil, paganism, and new forms of occultism.

In addition to all this, Halloween has become downright dangerous in many neighborhoods. Scares about razor blades hidden in apples and poisoned candy have spread across the nation in recurring cycles. For most parents, the greater fear is the encounter with occultic symbols and the society’s fascination with moral darkness.

For this reason, many families withdraw from the holiday completely. Their children do not go trick-or-treating, they wear no costumes, and attend no parties related to the holiday. Some churches have organized alternative festivals, capitalizing on the holiday opportunity, but turning the event away from pagan roots and the fascination with evil spirits. For others, the holiday presents no special challenges at all.

These Christians argue that the pagan roots of Halloween are no more significant than the pagan origins of Christmas and other church festivals. Without doubt, the church has progressively Christianized the calendar, seizing secular and pagan holidays as opportunities for Christian witness and celebration. Anderson M. Rearick, III argues that Christians should not surrender the holiday. As he relates, “I am reluctant to give up what was one of the highlights of my childhood calendar to the Great Imposter and Chief of Liars for no reason except that some of his servants claim it as his.”

Nevertheless, the issue is a bit more complicated than that. While affirming that make-believe and imagination are part and parcel of God’s gift of imagination, Christians should still be very concerned about the focus of that imagination and creativity. Arguing against Halloween is not equivalent to arguing against Christmas. The old church festival of “All Hallow’s Eve” is by no means as universally understood among Christians as the celebration of the incarnation at Christmas.

Christian parents should make careful decisions based on a biblically-informed Christian conscience. Some Halloween practices are clearly out of bounds, others may be strategically transformed, but this takes hard work and may meet with mixed success.

The coming of Halloween is a good time for Christians to remember that evil spirits are real and that the Devil will seize every opportunity to trumpet his own celebrity. Perhaps the best response to the Devil at Halloween is that offered by Martin Luther, the great Reformer: “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him for he cannot bear scorn.”

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther began the Reformation with a declaration that the church must be recalled to the authority of God’s Word and the purity of biblical doctrine. With this in mind, the best Christian response to Halloween might be to scorn the Devil and then pray for the Reformation of Christ’s church on earth. Let’s put the dark side on the defensive.

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Reformation: Katharina von Bora

 The breadth and depth of the Reformation amazes me!  Here we have “the first pastor’s wife”–a runaway nun who married Luther.  Thanks to for this 500th commemoration of the Reformation.

Here We Stand

Day 30

Katharina von Bora


The Runaway Nun

By Kristin Tabb

On a chilly April night, twelve nuns crept silently into a fish wagon and waited for city councilor Leonard Koppe to begin driving, counting the tense minutes until their monastic vocation would end forever.

These women, smuggled from the convent in Nimbschen, Germany (in a breakout masterminded by Martin Luther), risked punishment as criminals if caught, and braved an uncertain future if successful. They were entirely dependent upon their family’s willingness to “harbor” the fugitives by receiving them back into their homes. Nuns whose families refused them would need to avail themselves of a husband, or discover some rare form of female employment by which they could independently support themselves.

Katharina von Bora, one of these nuns, found no recourse in these options, and after she experienced two failed marriage proposals, Luther found himself feeling responsible for the former nun. The feisty Katharina finally insisted that she would only marry Luther or his friend Nicolas von Amsdorf. Apparently, Luther accepted the challenge and wed the runaway nun on June 13, 1525.

The Pastor’s Wife

Marriage to Luther was a social step down for Katharina, who was born into a noble family, with generations of lordly lineage. It also catapulted her into scandal and public ridicule. Erasmus of Rotterdam even predicted that the union would result in the birth of the Antichrist!

In spite of the tumultuous environment for their controversial marriage, the allegiance proved affectionate, loving, fruitful, faithful, and enduring. The couple moved into their new home, dubbed “The Black Cloister,” and Katharina pioneered a “new” calling that had been absent in medieval times — the pastor’s wife.

The morning after her wedding, Katharina initiated her new vocation by serving breakfast to the few friends that had attended the ceremony the night before. Katharina’s role as spouse of the famed Reformer, mother to six biological (and several orphaned) children, and manager of their parsonage (another innovation of the Reformation) and property became an instructive model for Protestant pastors’ wives of that era.

The Reformers firmly established this role as a high vocational calling with theological and biblical foundation and gave new dignity to Christian women by including domestic work in the ministry of the gospel, thereby transforming the ideal Christian woman from its former medieval ideal (i.e., nun).

God in Every Task

For Katharina, this calling involved caring for Luther, supporting his work and travels, nurturing their children, and a wide variety of tasks involving their parsonage. She renovated the abandoned Augustinian monastery that served as their home; hosted the guests that stayed in their forty rooms; served meals to thirty or forty people regularly and banquets for more than a hundred; and created a self-sustaining household by purchasing and cultivating farmland for gardens, orchards, and animals to provide food for family and guests — as well as making bread and cheese and brewing beer.

In keeping with the Reformers’ view that all of life is spiritual, Katharina did not distinguish between “practical” and “spiritual” tasks, but found fuel for her daily work in that she served God in all tasks. Her engagement in theology was limited to her participation in the “table talks” that the Luthers hosted in their parsonage. She knew enough Latin and Scripture to engage in heated dinnertime debates, a habit Luther apparently encouraged.

“I Will Stick to Christ”

In 1542 Katharina and Luther grieved the loss of their 13-year-old daughter, Magdalena, of which Luther wrote, “My wife and I should only give thanks with joy for such a happy departure and blessed end [for Magdalena] . . . yet the force of our natural love is so great that we cannot do this without weeping and grieving in our hearts or even without experiencing death ourselves. . . . Even the death of Christ . . . is unable totally to take this away, as it should.”

This grief would only be paralleled by Katharina’s grief at Martin’s own death in 1546, which she described in one of her few surviving letters:

I am in truth so very saddened that I cannot express my great heartache to any person and do not know how I am and feel. I can neither eat nor drink. Nor again sleep. If I had owned . . . an empire I would not have felt as bad had I lost it, as I did when our dear Lord God took from me — and not only from me but from the whole world — this dear and worthy man.

Katharina spent the rest of her days seeking support from Luther’s former supporters in hopes of maintaining their home and children, until she died after falling out of a wagon in December 1552. On her deathbed, she proclaimed, “I will stick to Christ as a burr to a topcoat.”

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Reformation Sunday: Luther’s Hymn

Reformation Sunday on, this, its 500th anniversary.  Time to sing, as did the reformers, especially Martin Luther.  Thanks to

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Discovering the Power of Luther’s Original Lyrics

Article by

The Reformers didn’t just protest; they sang. The Protestant Reformation, which began in earnest 500 years ago this week, didn’t just give birth to preaching and writing, but it inspired music and unleashed song.

That God declares us rebels fully righteous on the sole basis of his Son, through faith alone — such news is too good not to sing. And that our Creator and Redeemer himself has spoken into our world, and preserved his speech for us in a Book, to be illumined by his own Spirit — such news is too good not to craft into verse. Perhaps the greatest evidence that the Reformation released real joy in freeing captives from the bondage of man-made religion is that its theology made for such a good marriage with music. The Reformation sang.

Battle Hymn of the Reformation

Leading the way not just in word, but in song, was Martin Luther. He wrote nearly forty hymns, many of which he composed not only the words but even the music. His most famous, of course, “A Mighty Fortress,” often is called “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” The song embodies with strength and gusto the very spirit of the Reformation, breaking free from the flaccidity and poverty of medieval theology with rich God-confidence.

The hymn takes its inspiration mainly from the first two verses of Psalm 46, along with the refrain of verses 7 and 11.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear . . . (Psalm 46:1–2)

The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. (Psalm 46:7, 11)

Psalm 46 opens with God as “refuge and strength,” and the battle hymn opens with God as “mighty fortress” — literally, a strong or unshakable castle. Line three is “help in trouble”; stanza three is “we will not fear.”

But that’s where the parallels end. Rather than a mere hymnodic expression of the psalm, we do better to call it a Christian hymn inspired by it. What’s generic in Psalm 46, Luther makes specific, and Christian. He names the personal agent behind the trouble: “our ancient foe,” the devil. He puts a human face and person to the rescue: “Christ Jesus it is he.” And the hymn apexes with the glorious Himalayan peaks of Romans 8.

How Did We Get the English?

Perhaps at this point, or sometime in the past, you’ve wondered about the English version we sing today, Hey, didn’t Luther speak German? Who brought this powerful hymn into English, and how faithful is it to Luther’s original?

“The Reformers didn’t just preach and write. They made music and unleashed song.”

The hymn came into English as early as ten years after Luther composed it, but the version most of us sing today was translated by Frederick Hedge more than 300 years later, in 1853. It is by no means a literal translation of the original, understandably taking certain licenses for the sake of meter and rhyme. Add to that the fact that Hedge was a Unitarian minister — meaning he believed in God’s oneness but not threeness. In other words, he was no Trinitarian. He believed Jesus was fully human but not God, inspired by God but not his eternal divine Son.

To give Hedge his due, his English version well embodies the mood and major themes of Luther’s original. “Mighty fortress,” admittedly less familiar imagery for us, captures Psalm 46 better than what comes to our minds today when we think of a “castle.” What’s in view in the psalm is first strength, not beauty. Think Helm’s Deep, not Disneyland. And we can thank Hedge for his powerful quatrain, alluding with Luther to Luke 21:16–18, at the finale:

Let goods and kindred go
This mortal life also
The body they may kill
God’s truth abideth still

What the Unitarian Lost

However, we shouldn’t be too surprised that a Unitarian translator might miss some things, both small and large — some intentionally and others unavoidably, given the nature of translating lyrics as opposed to prose. To help you better enjoy the power of Luther’s original, let’s note seven variants, thanks to a “woodenly literal” translation by John Piper, reviewed by German pastor Matthias Lohmann. (The full translation is posted below.)

1. Offense, Not Just Defense

Hedge’s second line says God is “a bulwark never failing.” What we miss from the original is that God, our Mighty Fortress, is not only defensive but also offensive — literally, “a good defense and weapon.” He not only protects but leads us forward into victory.

2. Help from Every Misery

In crafting his poetic lines, Hedge says God is our helper “amid the flood of mortal ills.” Luther’s original is more sweeping: “he helps us get free from every misery.” This is the major theme we see emerge: Luther’s is stronger.

3. Luther’s Wonderful Extreme Statements

“As strong as ‘A Mighty Fortress’ is in our English, it is even stronger in its undiluted, original form.”

Speaking of every, Hedge’s translation consistently softens Luther’s extreme statements. Which means that as strong as “A Mighty Fortress” is in our English, it is even stronger in its original form. Not only does our God, our Mighty Fortress, free us from “every misery,” but “With our power nothing is accomplished / We are very soon lost” (compare with “Did we in our own strength confide / Our striving would be losing”). So also, Satan “does not do anything to us” is a more forceful claim than simply “his rage we can endure.” And related to our “goods and kindred” (literally, “goods, honor, child, and wife”), Luther asserts, “They will have no profit,” which Hedge leaves out altogether and fills the gap with “God’s truth abideth still.”

What’s lost in Hedge softening Luther’s edges? Luther’s extremes better capture not only God’s extreme fullness and power, but also our extreme emptiness and powerlessness.

4. God Works All According to Plan

We said above that the hymn culminates with Romans 8. Not only is Satan utterly unsuccessful in his efforts against us (Romans 8:31), but in the final stanza, Luther alludes to Romans 8:28, with Ephesians 1:11: “[Christ] is with us according to plan.” Hedge again says less (“Through him who with us sideth”), opting just to capture “with us” but not the divine sovereignty of “according to plan.”

5. The World Could Be Much Worse

Hedge’s “though” at the outset stanza three introduces a subtle difference worth noting. “Though this world with devils filled” concedes a magnitude to the evil presently at work in our world that Luther did not. He did not think the world was full of devils. Devils enough, for sure, but not a world full of them. Luther says “even if.” He raises a hypothetical to make a case for God-confident faith now. “Even if the world were full of devils” — and it is not full of devils, but just one — but even if this were the case, “We would not thus fear so very much / We will nevertheless succeed.”

Luther aims to conquer fear, and feed faith, in the present by asserting that even if our plight was much worse, we would still be utterly secure in Christ. How much more should we now rest secure in his unshakable sovereignty!

6. No Other God Than Jesus

Most significantly, the Unitarian drops Luther’s reference to Jesus as God. Hedge inserts “from age to age the same” in place of “there is no other God.” This is the greatest of Luther’s extreme statements that doesn’t make Hedge’s cut, and this is the single biggest oversight or alteration. Might it not be fair to assume alteration since Hedge was Unitarian?

It is gloriously true that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), but that’s not what Luther had in his original. Rather, it seems to have made the Unitarian squirm, and he sought to rescue this otherwise strong hymn from what he thought was Trinitarian error.

7. His Kingdom Is for Us

Finally, Hedge’s last line (“His kingdom is forever”) loses Luther’s “for us” (literally, “The kingdom must remain for us”). It’s a small loss, yes, but sweet and important. This is the great for-us-ness which the Reformation so wonderfully recaptured. In Christ, we not only catch a glimpse of God’s spectacular kingdom, but we’re invited in. We become part of the reign from the inside (even, in some real way, reigning with him, 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 20:6) — in a kingdom that not only remains forever but is for us, for our eternal good and everlasting joy.

So, this weekend, and into the future, as we enjoy Hedge’s admirable translation — for which we should be thankful — we can rest assured that Luther’s original is even stronger, and even better. And Psalm 46 and Romans 8 are even better, and even stronger, than what Luther could capture in verse. The God we sing about will always be stronger, and better, than even our best songs can say.

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
A “Woodenly Literal” Translation
by John Piper, with Matthias Lohmann

A strong castle is our God,
A good defense and weapon.
He helps us become free from every misery
That has now affected us.
The old evil enemy
Is now in earnestness with his intents.
Great Power and much deception
Is his cruel armor.
On earth is not its likeness.

With our power nothing is accomplished.
We are very soon lost.
The right man fights for us
Whom God himself has chosen.
Do you ask who that is?
His name is Jesus Christ,
The Lord of hosts,
And there is no other God.
The battlefield he must hold.

Even if the world were full of Devils
And would want to swallow us up,
We would not thus fear so very much.
We will nevertheless succeed.
The prince of this world,
How bitterly he might pretend to be,
Nevertheless will not do anything to us
Because he is judged.
A little word can fell him.

That word they shall let stand
And will have no thanks for it.
He is with us according to plan
With his Spirit and gifts.
If they take the body,
Goods, honor, child, and wife,
Let them go away.
They will have no profit.
The kingdom must remain for us.

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