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PHIL: Well, I’m here in the Grace to You studios with John MacArthur. And, John, today we want to talk about the Protestant Reformation.
JOHN: Great. This is the right time to do it.
PHIL: It is. I don’t know about you, but we are – this actually marks the five hundredth anniversary of when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. He did that on October 31, 1517. And so, all this year 2017 in half of September and all of October I’ve been mostly speaking on request at conferences where people wanted to talk about the five solas. And we’ll be talking a bit about that. But I want to talk first a little bit about the history of the Reformation.
JOHN: Yeah, and this has been in everybody’s mind, and is the reason why at this very time, I’ve been going verse by verse through the book of Galatians, which I think was the book that had the greatest impact on Luther. He actually came to salvation a couple of years after he pinned his thesis to the door when he was going through Galatians, and that became his favorite book. So we’ve been looking at the gospel, salvation by faith alone, as Paul argues for it in the book of Galatians. It’s been really a tremendous experience for all of us.
PHIL: Yeah, and it’s great too. It’s a timely thing, I think, for evangelicals in America right now. You’ve complained, and so have I, over the recent years that evangelicals seemed to have forgotten Reformation principles.
JOHN: Yeah, maybe on purpose, as if there’s something bad about the past.
JOHN: You have a lot of people who are just ignorant of the Reformation, and then you have other people who are purposely sort of ignoring the Reformation in a mad dash to be relevant in the contemporary culture: “What in the world does the Reformation have to say?” And that is tragic, because there is a history of redemption. And we’re in the flow of that history, and we need to understand that history and glorify God for it, particularly those high points where the gospel was recovered and articulated with such clarity and power, that the defense of the gospel by the Reformers is still the way we defend the gospel even today.
PHIL: Right. Well, you brought up a great point. You said it sort of in passing, that when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door he really hadn’t come to a full understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith, which became sort of the linchpin doctrine of the Reformation. But his main concern was the sale of indulgences. Talk about that and explain what that means.
JOHN: Well, yeah, and I think what we see with his 95 Theses is that he saw the corruption of the Roman Catholic system, but he hadn’t yet come to understand the gospel. Well, simply put, Rome sold forgiveness for money; and you could buy forgiveness by purchasing an indulgence. And that, of course, is one of the ways that they built the Vatican; they used that kind of corruption, that kind of money, selling indulgence, selling forgiveness essentially, selling time off purgatory for money, to build the empire.
Obviously, that has nothing to do with forgiveness, and it was so evidently corrupt. In fact, a hundred years before Luther, John Huss had done the same thing. He had gone after the Roman Catholic Church on the selling of indulgences even then. So there was that corruption that was blatant. And, of course, the papacy was equally corrupt through all that era of history.
So I was in Italy, maybe you were there with us, a couple of years ago when the pope declared certain church doors to be doors of penance; and if you passed through those doors you received certain forgiveness of your sins and time off purgatory. So here we are five hundred years later, not a whole lot has changed there. And then, of course, when you go in, the assumption is there’s a big bucket there you’re supposed to put your money in. And so the Church is still falsely selling forgiveness, which comes only from God, of course.
PHIL: Yeah, that’s right. In fact, Luther would have said about the pope’s decree to grant absolution if you walk through those church doors. If the pope has power to do that, why doesn’t he just, you know, empty hell and open the doors of heaven for everybody freely? But he doesn’t have the power to do that.
JOHN: Right. And why would he pick certain doors?
PHIL: Yeah, that’s right.
JOHN: Pretty arbitrary.
PHIL: Yeah, and that kind of thing made Luther really angry, and it was particularly one character, Johann Tetzel.
JOHN: Tetzel was in charge of the sale of indulgences. He was the architect of the marketing scheme.
PHIL: In Germany. He went through Germany, right.
JOHN: Yeah. And, you know, you have to understand the desperation of people. Illiteracy was basically dominant, people couldn’t read; that’s why when Luther began to attack the Church he used a cartoonist by the name of Cranach; and you and I have both seen some of his cartoons.
PHIL: Yeah. Some of them are a little over the top.
JOHN: A little over the top. But you had an illiterate population, and you had people who were in fear of the Roman system, so they literally could capitalize on the ignorance of the people; and that’s exactly what the Roman Catholic Church did.
PHIL: Tetzel had a famous little jingle that he wrote: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul” –
JOHN: “Soul from purgatory does spring.”
PHIL: That’s right.
JOHN: Yeah. Yeah. Sad, sad situation. And even, as I said, Luther didn’t know yet the full understanding of the gospel savingly. He saw that what was his experience and what the Catholic Church was doing was corrupt and ungodly. And that was the beginning of looking for the truth.
PHIL: Luther had always had a – let’s say maybe an overactive conscience. He himself was burdened with such a weight of guilt, that even the priests whom he confessed to begged him to stop confessing.
JOHN: Oh, yeah. He would confess for sometimes six hours, six hours of confession, and try to find everything in his life that he needed to confess. He would fast. In fact, he fasted so incessantly that his friends thought he was going to die of starvation. He would inflict pain on himself.
One of the things that he tried to do to deal with his sin was freezing. He talks about the fact that he actually put himself in positions where he was ill-clothed in freezing winter, and he remained there as if somehow this was going to act as some way to relieve him from his guilty conscience and his sin. And he went to Rome, you’ll remember, thinking that, “If I go to Rome and I climb the Scala Sancta, the steps, “I’m going to be relieved of this.” And he went through all of that and he was horrified at what he saw. He saw the exact same corruption that he’d seen before. And he made that long journey back with his soul still tormented. But he tried everything that the monastery told him was supposed to be a means to relieving his conscience; and none of it did any good at all.
PHIL: Luther was an almost dysfunctional character man of extremes like that. But that was the thing that prompted him to push so hard against the corruption he saw in Rome.
JOHN: Yeah, and I think it takes somebody like that, a man who is not hindered by anything other than what he sees as necessity. He had no fear; he was fearless. He was bold, he was brash, he was crude. Any way he could he made his point; and he kept making it, and kept making it, and kept making it. And, you know, while we all understand that he had foibles and he had weakness, and there were things that he said and did that were unacceptable, it was almost as if it would take a man like that to bring down the system. And then, of course, he was followed by the more calm and cool and calculating and collected John Calvin, who then took all of that that Luther sort of started with and turned it into systematic theology without equal.
So the Lord knew the role, I think, that Luther played, and the Lord used him. He’s sort of a Peter figure, you know; he’s all in one minute and all out the next minute, you know. You don’t want to say his whole life is a model of anything; but the highs were incredibly high in the way the Lord used him. And I think necessarily it had to be a man like that.
PHIL: You wrote the forward to a book called The Legacy of Luther that was published, I think, by Ligonier’s Reformation Press. And in it you talked about Luther’s character flaws and why we know them so well. And you made the point that one of the reasons we’re so familiar with some of the brash and foolish things that Luther said is every time he spoke there was somebody there taking it down in all of this, which was never intended for public consumption, his discussions at the table were later published in a large collection called Table Talk.
JOHN: Table Talk was never intended to be printed up and preserved forever.
PHIL: It was published after Luther died, he didn’t even know it.
JOHN: Right. These were candid conversations. And, of course, I think we have to realize that it was a much baser world. And we live in a very refined world. There are a lot of human experiences that we don’t ever see that people do, even daily responsibilities and duties in private. We don’t live in a world like that. We don’t live in a world where the street is also the sewer. We don’t live in that kind of gross world anymore, we live in a very sanitized world. So sometimes it’s hard for us to understand what has been called Luther’s scatology; kind of very vivid language with regard to those things. But, look, life was much more coarse.
PHIL: Right. He wasn’t exactly unique in that.
JOHN: No, not at all.
PHIL: Some of his opponents used equally –
JOHN: Well, yeah, and some that you would assume to be more refined. Sir Thomas More who was an enemy of the Reformation, a Roman Catholic in England, said things about Luther that were basically unprintable. So there was a kind of discourse in that more crude world that is to be expected I think. But beyond that…
PHIL: Unprintable, though they did print them.
JOHN: They did, yeah.
PHIL: You could actually Google.
JOHN: When I say “unprintable” I mean it’s not going to show up in my book.
PHIL: That’s right. You could actually Google Thomas More’s tract on Luther and read that these days. It’s awful.
JOHN: Yeah, he actually called him an outhouse.
PHIL: Yeah. And worse.
JOHN: Yeah, and worse. But I think we have to understand that there’s another element with Luther that has really kind of been a problem, and it’s been a lasting problem, and that is that he didn’t understand God’s plan for the Jews. And if you go to Wittenberg – you’ve been there – there is a church that he preached in while he was there that depicts Jews as pigs in some gross kind of architectural design that’s on the corners of those churches. And I think in some ways, that sort of bitterness toward the Jews, because they killed Jesus and rejected Him, created a kind of antisemitism that launched even amillennialism. I think if you trace back, amillennialism, or what’s called supersessionism – the church replaces Israel, you find some of those roots in that kind of antisemitism that was around, even in Luther’s day.
PHIL: Now in other ways though, Luther was a great theologian. He made some discoveries, or came to understanding of things in Scripture that really no one before him had been able to put in language so clear, particularly on the doctrine of justification by faith.
JOHN: Yeah, and that is the heart of the gospel, and that was the great dawn in Luther’s mind. And, look, we know this, Phil, that God saved him. God stepped down and regenerated him, and the light went on. The light of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ came shining into his heart, and he came alive, and he understood that salvation was by grace alone through faith alone. And that was essentially the launch of the recovery of the gospel.
I need to say, because I think people misunderstand this: there had been teachers going all the way back to the apostles who preached the true gospel. You see it among the fathers, and others like a John Huss a hundred years before, and others. So the gospel wasn’t lost, and there were true believers through all of those periods of time who heard and believed the gospel, and read the Scripture, or heard the Scripture read to them. But the Catholic system was the dominant church in Christianity, and it was void of the gospel; and it was at that point that Luther, having had the light shine in his own heart, then turned to shine the light of the gospel on the church, and launched the Reformation.
PHIL: Yeah. It says if the truth was buried under, you know, blankets of superstition and human tradition and all of that, Luther and the other magisterial Reformers pulled it out.
JOHN: Yeah, and I always think about John Huss a hundred years before, because he started preaching in the vernacular. He started preaching when he was in basically Croatia. Well, he started preaching in the language of the people, which was never done. Everything was in Latin; everything was darkness. And he started preaching the language of the people; and they silenced him and ultimately they killed him, because he was putting all the authority with the Scripture. He was preaching the gospel; he was denying the headship of the pope in the church. So there had always been people like that.
PHIL: In fact, another one, a contemporary of Huss’ in England was Wycliffe who also preached in the vernacular and translated the Scriptures into English.
JOHN: I have upstairs in my office a copy of Wycliffe’s New Testament, one of the first ones ever printed. Yeah, the gospel’s always there, and there are always faithful men. But God used Luther. You know, it’s the right person at the right time in the right moment. He understood the gospel, the true gospel, and he – just think about it. I mean, he literally stood up against this massive, massive system that had been around for a thousand years. That’s a lot to stand up against. I mean, how many times would you second guess yourself and say, “Am I really right about this since I’m all alone on this one?”
PHIL: Yeah. Well, he did actually. When they put him on trial, he said, “Give me a day to think about it,” before he finally came back and delivered his famous “Here I Stand” speech.
JOHN: “I can do no other.”
PHIL: Yeah, yeah. You make another important point when you say Luther wasn’t discovering something new or inventing a new doctrine. These truths that Luther brought to the forefront and clarified and emphasized, they were there. You can find hints of them throughout the church fathers and church history. It was Calvin, I think, who said that you could take just the writings of the church fathers, and in a contest between the Protestants and the Catholics, he said, “We believe that we can demonstrate everything we teach from the writings of the church fathers.” It’s just that they weren’t always in agreement with one another.
So there’s stuff that contradicts. They sometimes even contradicted themselves. But Calvin made a great point of saying, “The truth is there. We’re not proposing some novel theology that nobody ever thought of before.”
JOHN: Yeah, and it’s so important to say that, because I think it was a German, Ritschl, who came up with this idea that the Reformers invented the sola fide, they invented the solas, they invented the gospel. And there are some pretty notable scholars who just regurgitated that same notion of Alexander McGrath – or Alister McGrath, rather, would be one of them, that British theologian who has written really a formidable work on the doctrine of justification. And Alister McGrath says that this is the doctrine, but it’s novel with the Reformers.
You know, what makes that so patently untrue is that the Reformers based that doctrine on the apostles. They defended it. Luther, all of them defended it, whether it’s Luther or Zwingli or Knox or Calvin or anybody else, they defended the doctrine from the text of Scripture. So they were going back. But they –
PHIL: Sola fide.
JOHN: Sola fide.
PHIL: I mean, sola Scriptura.
JOHN: Sola Scriptura, yes, the formal principle for the Reformation. But it needs to be said too: Nathan Busenitz who’s the Academic VP at The Master’s Seminary just released a book called Long Before Luther. I read it over the weekend, and it literally dismantles all arguments that the Reformers invented this doctrine. And he goes back with replete quotes from men going all the way back from the Reformation all the way back, you know, to Polycarp, the first generation after the apostles, and shows how they affirmed justification by faith, justification by faith apart from works.
And I love the title of his book: Long Before Luther. The gospel has always been there, it’s just that the system that they knew as Christianity didn’t have that gospel.
PHIL: Right. I remember a message you did a few years ago making that point from the teaching of Christ Himself, because it’s often said we don’t find justification by faith in Christ’s preaching, but only in Paul, the apostle Paul. You went back to Christ and said, “No, in that parable He tells of the publican and the sinner.”
JOHN: Yeah, in Luke 18. Yeah. Luke 18, there’s two men that come to pray. One is a Pharisee who lifts up his eyes and says, “I thank You that I’m not like other men like this, you know, publican over here. I tithe, I fast, I do alms,” whatever. And the publican won’t so much as lift his eyes toward heaven. He’s looking down at the ground pounding on his chest, a symbol of sadness, remorse, and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And Jesus says, “That man went home justified.”
JOHN: That is justification by faith alone. That’s a sinner with – that’s God justifying the ungodly, to use the words of Paul.
PHIL: Exactly. And the one who wasn’t justified was the guy –
JOHN: Was the one who had all the works.
PHIL: Right, and he’s citing all the rituals he went through.
JOHN: And mark this also, Phil. The Pharisee not only had works, he had faith. He had faith, he’s talking to God.
JOHN: So he had faith. But he believed that his works sort of validated his faith and moved him into the category of acceptance with God, and Jesus said absolutely not. Faith plus works is a damning lie. The man with nothing to claim but faith alone, crying out in repentance for God to be merciful to him, he was the one who went home declared righteous.
PHIL: Now, we’ll come back to the biblical basis for Reformation doctrines. But before we get too far from the history of it, I want to bring up another figure luminary from Reformation history, and it’s someone I know you’ve read about, and you talk about him frequently, and that is William Tyndale.
JOHN: Yeah. It was probably ten years ago that somebody gave me the Yale biography by David Daniell of William Tyndale. It’s admittedly a tome of six or seven hundred pages. It’s a typical Oxford kind of biography – very detailed. And I started into it not knowing whether I would be able to navigate the whole thing. I couldn’t put it down. I read it, I set it down; some months later I came back and read it again.
I think Tyndale doesn’t get the respect and maybe the honor that he deserves because he comes in just a little bit before the Reformation; but just an incredibly remarkable life. This is a guy who knew half a dozen languages. This was a brilliant scholar, an Oxford scholar who came to the conviction that the Bible needed to be in the hands of every single person. He wanted the plow boy to have the Bible. Well, of course, the Roman system kept the Bible away from everybody. They kept it in Latin so people couldn’t read it. And Tyndale went against that and set out to translate the Bible.
I think the statistics are pretty shocking. If you go back to it, one of the King James Version Bibles that you might have had as a kid, eighty-three percent of the New Testament is drawn from Tyndale and about seventy-six percent of the Old Testament. So he not only translated the Bible, but he essentially shaped the English language. He shaped the English biblical language that is so familiar to us.
It’s remarkable how the Spirit of God used him. And, of course, to be punished for putting the Bible in people’s hands by a government, the British government that believed in God and believed in Christ and believed in the church, is a strange reality. But they went after him with a vengeance. And, of course, he had to leave England and go to the continent, and he worked diligently on the New Testament.
My favorite story about him was, of course, Sir Thomas More was after him trying to stop him, and they couldn’t find him. He finished the New Testament, he had them printed, and somebody met with him and said, “Well, I’ll arrange for them to be taken back into England in the English language.”
Well, this guy was a spy, he was a plant, he was a representative of the opposition. So he took all of the New Testaments that Tyndale had assembled and printed, and he burned them all. And you would think what a horrific thing to do to a guy who was, you know, in exile working so hard to do that.
Tyndale’s response was really amazing. He said, “I thank the Lord for this. This is a divine providence, because my further study has indicated there were errors in my translation, and so the Lord took care of that by just eliminating all of those that had the error.” “A providence of God where they meant it for evil, but God meant it for good,” Genesis 50:20.
And so he started again and, of course, produced the New Testament; and had lost his life in the process. I mean, they finally discovered him, found him, and executed him.
PHIL: Yeah, he was betrayed by someone who he thought was his friend, right?
JOHN: But that happened. That was the same thing that happened when the New Testaments were all burned; it was a betrayal then.
JOHN: Yeah, he didn’t really know who his friends were; and it was a lonely existence. You know, David Daniell talks about the exigencies of life. He was cold; he had meager clothing; he didn’t have enough food. He had to live like a fugitive all the time because he didn’t know who would betray him and turn him in. But he was so driven to put the Word of God in the hands of the English-speaking people that there was no sacrifice too great. And we don’t want to forget him, because every time you pick up your Bible you have a debt to pay to William Tyndale.
PHIL: He was the first to translate from the original Hebrew and Greek, right?
JOHN: Right, and not from the vulgate, not from the Latin.
PHIL: His life overlapped with Luther’s, and he and Luther met, I think, at least once. But Tyndale had his passion to get the Scriptures in the hand of, you know, the average common people before Luther ever nailed his theses to the…
JOHN: Right. But then Luther followed on Tyndale; and when Luther was in exile, he translated the New Testament into German. So he followed the lead of Tyndale in knowing that the Bible had to be in the hands of the people.
One of the things that was also very interesting was that the whole clergy, the whole English clergy that bounced back from being Catholic to Protestant, depending on how Henry VIII felt at any time in his romantic life, the people didn’t know if they were Protestant or Catholic. And it didn’t really matter, because the clergy didn’t know the Bible either. The clergy were as utterly ignorant as ignorant could be. They were as ignorant as the populous.
PHIL: Yeah. One of the things that I remember about Tyndale in particular was, he earned his bachelor’s degree and his master of arts before they even let him study the Scriptures; and he made a comment about how before we even can look at the Scriptures and study it systematically, we have to be taught all the – I think he used the word “nursed” – we have to be nursed on the teaching of the superstitions and traditions of the church.
JOHN: Yeah. Imagine getting a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree at Oxford in theology, and then deciding you’re going to read the Bible.
PHIL: Right. Amazing times those were.
JOHN: Again, this is a man that we would have to say God in His sovereignty shined the light of the glory of the gospel in his heart; the light went on, and the fire lit in his heart. And he was one of those kind of fulcrum personalities that turns the world, that turns history.
PHIL: All right, now talk about Calvin. Let’s move to Calvin, because it’s always been my impression that of all the magisterial Reformers, Calvin was the best theologian, and probably the best expositor, and maybe long-term the most influential of all of the magisterial Reformers.
JOHN: I think that is absolutely right, and the reason for that is, the body of work, the body of work that he produced is just so massive. It obviously started with the institutes, which was his unrelenting logical answer to everything that was wrong in Roman Catholic theology. It is beyond masterful, it is magisterial; that’s the only word for it.
He started it when he was relatively young, and refined it and refined it. But then add to that this massive body of expository work in which he essentially wound up writing a commentary on every book, every book of the Bible except the book of Revelation.
PHIL: Yeah, that’s what fascinates me. I mean, if all Calvin had ever done was written his book The Institutes of the Christian Religion, that would have been anybody else’s magnum opus, their life’s work. But on top of that, he was preaching every single day.
JOHN: And, you know, I preached in Calvin’s pulpit a few years ago in Geneva in the great cathedral there where he preached, and we introduced the MacArthur Study Bible in French. And in the l’auditoire, the little auditorium next door where he taught all the time, he would preach five, six times a week, and all of it would be an exposition of Scripture. And he would have some people sitting in the front row taking down everything. One person couldn’t get it all down, but five people could get it all down and pull it all together; and that’s where those commentaries came from. I mean, that was their way of recording things in those days; everybody got together and wrote it out. And that’s exactly what Spurgeon did, by the way, as well, and many others have done that.
But out of that came that massive amount of biblical commentary. And so I think that the range of Calvin makes him the most influential of all the Reformers. You could talk about the influence of Knox, and his influence was great at the time. He wrote on church history, and that book is still being read today. But nobody comes close.
You can talk about Luther’s Bondage of the Will; and that’s still a tremendous resource today. But no one, no one has ever produced the body of work at the range and the level of depth and understanding that John Calvin did.
PHIL: Yeah, and at one point, he was driving out of Geneva.
JOHN: Yeah. Well, you have to back up a little bit in his life and realize that when he was married his life was very difficult; a number of his children died; his wife died, Idelette died; and he is alone. And he’s got children, not only his own children, but I remember reading one time that he at one point had nine children in his house that he was taking care of, and there was no wife there. He had gout issues, he had all kinds of physical problems.
And then he was training pastors in what was called the School of Death – his seminary, how’s that for a seminary title: “The School of Death”? – because the Catholic system was so powerful, by the time they got trained in French, you know, in sound doctrine and theology, and tried to go back to France with the truth, they wound up being martyrs.
So this was a man who had to produce all of that with physical ailments, physical illness, alone having lost some of his children and lost his wife, trying to raise other children, and then having the whole city of Geneva look to him as if he were the king, as if he was the ruler, and try to navigate all the issues that were going on politically there. And I think, you know, it became difficult for him certainly at the point of Servetus, when he stumbled into that kind of situation, which I think in retrospect, he probably would have done differently in other circumstances. But, yeah, it is just a remarkable, remarkable body of work that a man can produce with none of the normal comforts that life might expect to bring to somebody that prolific.
PHIL: And to be fair to Calvin in the Servetus affair, I think he wasn’t as culpable as his enemies even at the time, and still today like to pretend. He’s not the one that sentenced Servetus to death, he just gave his approval of it, but asked for actually a more merciful means of execution; and they burned Servetus anyway against his wishes. So it wasn’t like he was controlling this.
JOHN: But, again, it was a different world, and you back up from that and you understand, look, if you’re a Reformer and you have just fought the battle of history to rescue the gospel, then you’re going to be so protective, right? You’re going to say, “Look, if we don’t ordain you and we don’t put our hands on you and ordain you to Christian ministry, you can’t preach.” Right?
I mean, they didn’t have people popping up and preaching. If you did that without authorization they would shut you down; and that was because they were chasing heretics because they – you have to understand the pendulum had swung so far that heresy dominated everything. And now when it swung toward the truth, they were frightened again of the reality that they could somehow return to what it used to be. And so even the Servetus thing was an attempt to prevent the influence that would drive them backwards.
PHIL: Right. Well, in fact, Servetus was a heretic by any measure, even the Catholics had –
JOHN: By every measure.
PHIL: Yeah, the Catholics would have condemned him to death as well. All right. Well, I’d like to move into maybe discussion of the theology of the Reformation as opposed to the history of it. We often group Reformation principles under those five heads that we call the five solas: sola fide, sola Scriptura, soli Deo gloria, solus Christus, and sola gratia. And I put them in a random order there.
Been some discussion this year about what’s the proper order. It seems to me sola Scriptura comes first; that is the principle that Luther was committed to from the beginning, and what emboldened him to nail those theses to the door was his conviction that Scripture is a higher authority than the pope.
JOHN: Yeah, and I think that’s historical. You can go back to Nehemiah chapter 8, and Israel has departed from God, and then comes the call, “Bring the book,” and they brought the book. And Nehemiah stands up and he reads from the book, and the revival starts.
Every restoration of truth, every great movement of God in the world is launched by recovery of Scripture, and that was the heart and soul. Look, sola gratia, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria, sola fide all comes out of the Bible. And what you had was a battle over who’s in charge. The authority in the Roman Catholic system was the pope and the Church. And the Church wasn’t including the people, the Church was made up of the pope and the cardinals and the higher ups, that was the Church; and the other people kind of suckled at the Church when they took the bread at the mass; but they weren’t the Church.
So the authority was all in the pope and the people around the pope. Luther came to the conclusion that everyone comes to that revolts against that, and that is that the Bible is the authority, the pope is not the authority. We don’t follow men, we don’t follow church councils, we don’t follow the magisterium, the collection of traditions; we follow the Word of God. And that is the foundation point of all sound doctrine.
Sound doctrine doesn’t rise out of philosophical theology. It doesn’t come from the musings of intelligent men. And that is Paul’s whole message in 1 Corinthians 1, that the wisdom of the wise is absolute foolishness with God. You can take the, “Where’s the wise man? Where’s the sage?” you know. They are useless in terms of knowing the mind of God. It is all bound up in the revelation of Holy Scripture. So the Reformation was essentially the result of a recommitment to the sole singular authority of Scripture.
PHIL: So sola Scriptura actually incorporates both the authority of Scripture and the sufficiency of Scripture. That’s something you’ve had quite a bit to say about – the sufficiency of Scripture.
JOHN: Well, yeah. To say that the Scripture is authoritative is one thing; that when the Scripture speaks, God speaks, and God is absolutely sovereign.
PHIL: Technically even the Catholics would affirm that.
JOHN: They would say that the Scripture is authority, but not the only authority.
PHIL: Right, and that the authority of Scripture is subject to the interpretation –
JOHN: Right. So they would say there is another authority, and that’s the church; and the church is the true interpreter of the Scripture, which then makes the church the real authority. But when you talk about the sufficiency of Scripture, that’s another situation all together; and that is to say, not that it’s all inspired by God, but that it is enough. It is enough for the salvation of the elect. It is enough for the sanctification of the redeemed. It is enough for the life of the church. It is enough for the ministry of believers in the world. It is enough to give us all that we need in terms of salvation, sanctification, edification, and fill up our hope of eternity. There is – another way to say it – there is no necessary spiritual truth outside the Bible.
PHIL: Yeah, I think the way the confession says it is, it is sufficient for God’s glory, man’s salvation, and everything that pertains to life and godliness.
JOHN: And that is exactly what the Bible says: we have all things that pertain to life and godliness. And another great statement about Scripture is 1 Corinthians 2:16. We have the mind of Christ. We have the mind of Christ. And Paul is talking about Scripture, he’s talking about Scripture; that’s the mind of Christ.
If that’s the mind of Christ, if that’s how He thinks, that’s all we need. I don’t need anything more than the mind of Christ. I don’t need the mind of Einstein. I don’t need the mind of Darwin. I don’t need the mind of any philosopher if I have the mind of Christ. That, to me, is the most wonderful definition of Scripture, to think –
And, you know, some people think, “Well, you have the mind of Christ. It means you kind of know how He feels about something.” No, that’s not it. You know exactly how He thinks about everything that He’s revealed in the Scripture; it’s all there.
So we have the mind of Christ. And to show you the sufficiency of it, we are told not to add anything to it or take anything away from it, or the plagues that are written in it will be added to us. So it’s all we need. It is sufficient to make the man of God complete, perfect, thoroughly furnished to all good works.
PHIL: You have a famous sermon on the sufficiency of Scripture from Psalm 19. You wrote a book called Our Sufficiency in Christ that talks quite a lot about the sufficiency of Scripture.
JOHN: You remember those days and how the publisher was pushing back?
JOHN: Because those were the days when Christian psychology was making huge inroads.
PHIL: Right. Mainstream evangelicalism was pushing back.
JOHN: Yeah, and they were saying, “Wait a minute, you need psychology before you even get to the Bible. You’ve got to have some psychologist kind of untangle you, and then the Bible can do its work.”
And, you know, we fought that tooth and nail. I fought that when the book was being published, and I was told by the publisher, you know, “You’re going to make a lot of people mad. You’re discounting the whole psychology era. This is big stuff in the church.” And I’m saying, “Look, I’m not denying that some people can understand human behavior, but I am denying that that has anything to do with honoring God and living a godly life.”
PHIL: Right. The other big issue that has sort of encroached among Protestants on this idea that Scripture is sufficient is the charismatic movement with fresh revelations.
JOHN: Oh, you know, we’ve addressed that with the book The Charismatics, and then Strange Fire, and the conference, and, you know, I continue to be amazed at how people are still buying the book Strange Fire, and even buying the book Charismatic Chaos, which was the book in the middle of those two. This is what I introduced in the first book on The Charismatics I don’t think everybody had thought about at that time – not everybody, maybe a few people – was that the charismatic movement was suggesting that there was divine revelation beyond Scripture. And they didn’t like to hear that; but that was, in fact, true. “Jesus spoke to me.” “God said this to me.” People were writing down – remember, they were keeping all the revelations they were getting.
PHIL: They still do it.
JOHN: Look, the whole Jesus Calling phenomenon, ten million books on Jesus Calling – all of that supposedly direct revelation from Jesus to this Sarah Young. And that flies in the face of what Scripture claims for itself; that is adding to Scripture. If you want to say, you know, in studying the Bible, “I felt some spiritual insight into this,” that’s one thing. But if you start saying, “Jesus said this,” and then, “Jesus said that,” and then, “Jesus said the other thing,” in a sense, Scripture can’t compete with that. If you buy into that you want your own personal Jesus giving you your own personal words.
And I think while Jesus is Calling books aren’t necessarily an advocacy of the charismatic movement, they’re the worst of it. They are the worst of it, because the worst of the movement isn’t speaking in tongues. I mean, that’s just gibberish that goes nowhere. That’s just not true, it’s just fake.
The worst of the movement on one level you might think is people believing in healing. But guess what: it doesn’t happen, and they die. Even the charismatic leaders die. The worst of it is people chasing some revelation beyond Scripture, and therefore going down pathways to be deceived by Satan. That’s the most serious.
PHIL: Yeah. It’s not uncommon to see some leading charismatics in America preaching an entire sermon on something they claim was revealed to them in a dream or whatever. That’s a departure from sola Scriptura is –
JOHN: Absolutely a departure from it. And, you know, once in a while I turn on one of the charismatic preachers, and what is universally true is, they’re wandering all over the place. I don’t know where the Bible is, but they’re wandering all over the place talking in the first person. They all talk in the first person. I don’t care who it is, they’re all talking in the first person, you know, “I did this, and the Lord showed me this, and then I did this,” and so forth.
It is antibiblical. It is false religion premised on intuition, personal insight. It’s the worst. And, you know, look, you can push this thing even to the point of spiritual formation, which is a big movement now. And if you look at what they’re teaching when they teach spiritual formation, they’re looking to teach people how to look inside themselves and find their spiritual core and their spiritual center, and find God.
God resides in terms of His revelation in His Word; and it is an external book, it is not internal. There is no truth in me; there’s no truth that I know intuitively; there’s no revelation from God that I’m going to find in myself. I’ve got to get out of myself and look at the Book. Anything that weakens the priority of Scripture or anything that puts itself up equally with Scripture, or anything that sublimates Scripture is an attack on sola Scriptura.
PHIL: This principle of sola Scriptura in my view is one of the reasons the Reformation started with Martin Luther. Other people had complained about corruption and bad doctrine in the church. Luther was relentless, and he made his appeal to Scripture because he understood early on that the authority of Scripture trumps the authority even of the pope. And once he came to that conviction there was just no stopping him; and all the other magisterial Reformers took the same stance.
JOHN: Yeah. And, you know, that is the work of the Holy Spirit. People say, “Why do you believe the Bible so completely?” And the answer is, “But that’s the work of the Holy Spirit in my life.” I believe it because the Spirit of God has given me life and opened the truth to me; and I see in the Scripture a glory that is the very glory of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit manifest in the Scripture.
And all these years, you know, I’m year forty-eight, I guess, preaching at Grace church, and I’m still in awe of the consistency and the power, and the depth and range and breadth of the Word of God. All this half a century of intent study and preaching the Scripture, it is so alive, it is so powerful, it is so all-glorious, that I don’t ever feel like I need to step outside of it and defend it. It is its own defense. Its own power is beyond any other external defense. And I think that people who get caught up in religions that add tradition to the Bible or revelation to the Bible or experience to the Bible or intuition to the Bible never do understand the real power of Scripture, because they haven’t set themselves, like Ezra did, to know the Scripture.
PHIL: Luther was conscience of that, because at the end of his life they asked him, you know, “What do you think is the secret to the way you’re teaching a revolutionized Germany?” And he said, “I didn’t do anything, God’s Word did it all.”
JOHN: He said, “I did nothing; the Word did everything.”
JOHN: Look, that’s –
PHIL: That’s what you’ve said as well.
JOHN: Yeah. In my small, little life I did nothing. I did nothing; the Word did everything. I don’t have anything to offer. I don’t know that I ever had a brilliant idea about anything. But the Word did everything.
PHIL: Now, somewhere along the line within a few years after the nailing of those 95 Theses on the church door, Luther did come to discover the doctrine of justification by faith. he was studying Romans and Galatians, and it was that verse that says, “The just shall live by faith.” It sort of opened his eyes famously.
The principle of sola fide, that’s the second principle I want to talk about. Those two I think, sola Scriptura and sola fide, are really the pillars of Reformation teaching.
JOHN: Sola fide is the heart of the gospel. If you reject sola fide, consciously or unconsciously, you can’t be saved. That’s Paul’s argument in Romans, and that’s his really tight argument in the book of Galatians. And he goes back to Abraham, and he goes back to Genesis 15:6 and says, “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness.” Righteousness was imputed to Abraham because he believed. In Romans he says that God justifies the ungodly by faith.
PHIL: Yeah, an amazing statement.
JOHN: It doesn’t say He justifies the godly, the people who do good; He justifies the ungodly by faith. And I’ve been saying in this series I’ve been doing on Galatians that a recent Pew survey of evangelicals yielded this, that fifty-two percent of contemporary evangelicals thinks salvation is by faith plus works, fifty-two percent; that’s the majority of evangelicals think works play a role in salvation. That’s another gospel; and Paul in Galatians says, “If anybody preaches to you another gospel let him be damned, let him be anathema, let him be cursed!” And then in the third chapter of Galatians he says, “I can’t believe that you’ve been bewitched. Who bewitched you? How can you be so foolish to be bewitched?”
I think the evangelical church in the world today is bewitched. I don’t think they know the gospel, I really don’t. I think they’re people sitting in, you know, sort of quasi churches, which preach a less than adequate gospel, who are completely bewitched about the truth. Luther understood that if you don’t have the true gospel, you don’t have a church, and the church doesn’t have a mission, doesn’t have a message.
So salvation is by faith alone. We know that, Ephesians 2:8 and 9, “By grace are you saved through faith; that not of yourselves, it’s a gift of God; not of works,” explicitly not of works, which God has, you know, before ordained that you should walk in them. Eventually you’re going to do works as a result, but not as the means or the source.
So, look, I’m convinced that those were the two main things in the Reformation, because the Roman system was about works. Yes, you have to believe in God, but it’s all on your works. That will always be the lie that Satan fosters, because salvation is by faith alone. So the way you counter that is some system of works, some system of personal righteousness.
PHIL: Now, of course, that’s what sola fide means: “faith alone.” But let’s define what you’re saying. When you say salvation is by faith alone, what you’re actually saying is – and I know this because I’ve read your books – what you’re saying is that faith is the sole instrument of our justification. The only ground on which we stand righteous before God is through a righteousness that’s imputed to us.
JOHN: That is exactly right.
PHIL: Not any goodness that we’ve earned.
JOHN: Right. So that’s the doctrine of justification, where God imputes to our account something that is actually alien to us. He gives us His righteousness because we believe, not because we have done anything to earn that. That is grace and grace alone, giving us divine righteousness by an act of faith.
But saying that, we have to quickly add this, that while works play no role in us being justified, they immediately become a manifestation of that justification; and that’s what it says in Ephesians 2:10, “God has ordained that we walk in good works.”
PHIL: But that pertains to our sanctification.
JOHN: That’s our sanctification.
PHIL: Yeah, and you’ve written so much on this.
JOHN: Well, yeah, all those books on The Gospel According to Jesus, The Gospel According to the Apostles, The Gospel According to Paul.
PHIL: But I think a lot of people don’t understand this was the point of contention between the Protestants and Roman Catholics. This was the central point of argument. This was the thing on which everything else hinged. And, in fact, Luther said the principle of justification by faith is the article by which the church stands or falls. Calvin said it’s the principle hinge of all religion.
Catholics – and this is where I think a lot of evangelicals don’t correctly understand – Catholics would not deny that we are justified by faith, they deny that we’re justified by faith alone.
JOHN: Alone. That’s exactly right. And that’s why it’s a sola, meaning “alone.” Right.
JOHN: PHIL: Right. And the minute you blend works with it, you have to go back to what Paul said: if it’s of works, then it’s no more of grace.
JOHN: It’s no more of grace, yeah. And that was the whole argument that he was making to the Galatians in chapter 3. He was saying, “Look, the law cannot coincide with faith. The law can’t save; the law condemns, the law kills, the law drives us to Christ. The law plays no role in our salvation, it simply reveals our sin. It has no part in our salvation.”
And I think to understand the level of human depravity is part of it, to understand that there’s nothing in our flesh that could please God anyway, and to understand that we’re all cursed if we have ever violated any part of God’s law. We’re under a curse that can’t be voided. So even if we did some good works, how do we avoid the curse that’s already on us, if James says that if you have offended in one place, you’ve broken the whole law?
So no matter what we did that was good, we’re still under the curse, we’re still under judgment. So that accrues nothing to our benefit. So salvation comes purely by faith, but it also encompasses regeneration and conversion and a new creation that immediately demonstrates itself in righteous attitudes and righteous works.
PHIL: Which is exactly what Paul says; it’s so clear in Scripture: “You’re saved by grace through faith; that not of yourselves, it’s a gift of God. But you’re saved” – he immediately says – “unto good works.”
JOHN: Unto good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them. And that is something to remind people of. That is as much in the sovereign purpose of God as our election was or our justification was. He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, he regenerated us by a sovereign work, and He sovereignly ordained that our lives would be marked by good works.
PHIL: Which brings us to the next sola: sola gratia, “grace alone.” Explain that.
JOHN: Well, that again means that this is purely a work of God based on His own uninfluenced, electing love. And it’s all of grace because none of us deserve it. I mean, we’re all cursed. Again, we go back to Galatians 3: “Cursed is everyone.” That’s pretty clear. Everybody’s cursed; we’re all under anathema, damnation. So none of us deserve anything but to see the fulfillment of that curse in eternal punishment because we’ve broken the law of God willfully.
So any salvation given to anyone is purely a matter of God’s grace. We have sinned against Him; we have offended Him, we continue to do that every day of our lives. I mean, David goes back even to the time of His conception and says, “In sin did my mother conceive me. I was a sinner and a rebel when I was formed in her womb.” This is who we are. We’re all under that same condemnation. So grace simply says, “In spite of what we are, God, by His own free and uninfluenced kindness and love, chooses to save us due to nothing in ourselves that is worthy of that.”
PHIL: In fact, the real truth of grace that I think a lot of people miss is not merely that we don’t deserve salvation, but we deserve the exact opposite.
JOHN: Right. We deserve to see the curse fulfilled.
PHIL: Right. Solus Christus.
JOHN: Well, “Christ alone.” He is the only Savior; there is no other way.
PHIL: It’s not a popular truth these days, is it?
JOHN: Well, again –
PHIL: Even many who would call themselves evangelicals have let go of this.
JOHN: Yeah. I read an article about a Presbyterian pastor the other day who said, “Christianity’s not the only way to heaven.” Yeah.
Look, this is the age of tolerance. This is the age of accepting truth as if it’s completely relative: “You have your truth, I have my truth; my truth’s for me, your truth’s for you,” the absence of absolutes.
I mean, that’s where we are in a post-modern world, right? There is no absolutes. There is no real fixed truth. So when we come along and say, “All the Muslims are lost and on their way to hell; all the Roman Catholics that are hoping in their works are lost and on their way to hell; all the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who have a corrupted view of Christ and God are on their way to hell; all the sincere religionists of the planet, whatever it is their religion might be, are all lost and headed for eternal hell,” that’s a hard message.
I remember many, many times being on Larry King television on CNN, and that was always an issue. No matter who I was talking to, whether I was talking to a homosexual, or whether I was talking to a Muslim, or whether I was talking to a Roman Catholic or an Atheist or a Hindu, Pantheist, they just were irate at the idea that Jesus alone is the Savior.
PHIL: And Larry King himself always brought that question up; it was as if he was obsessed with that question.
JOHN: Well, yeah. And I thanked him for it, because that’s what I wanted to say. And people say, “Well, how did you prepare for that?” I say, “It was real easy. I wanted to say two things: the Bible is the only divine revelation, and Jesus is the only Savior.” So all I was looking for was a way to say that. I really didn’t care what the topic was, I wanted to get back to that.
That is the offense. That is the most offensive things that Christians can say is that everyone – I mean, that’s what they throw at us all the time: “You mean all these people are wrong? You mean all these people are going to hell? You mean all the unbelieving Jews are going to hell? You mean all the Mormons are going to hell, all the people who are so sincere and that have some, you know, tribal worship, they’re all going to go to hell if they don’t know Jesus Christ? He’s the only way?” This is just – this is insanity to the modern pride.
PHIL: Would you agree though, that you haven’t really preached the gospel at all unless you’ve made that fact clear, that Christ is the only way?
JOHN: You have not preached the gospel at all. And I see evangelicals dancing around that issue, not being really willing to say that as explicitly at it needs to be said. And, you know, in truth, it might be harder to say that today than it was for Luther to say that in his day, because the Catholics believed that Christ was the only Savior. Solus Christus really wasn’t new. Sola Scriptura was new; sola fide was new; sola gratia was new. But solus Christus, they all believed that Christ was the only Savior.
It’s tougher today, you know. We need people with the kind of sanctified backbone that a Luther or a Calvin had in this day, who will stand up and say, “It is Christ alone. It is Christ alone.”
PHIL: Just to be clear though, there was a distinction between what the Reformers meant and what Rome meant when they talked about solus Christus.
JOHN: Well, no question.
PHIL: Because the Catholics didn’t believe that Christ was the only mediator between God and men.
JOHN: But they did believe that He was the Savior who died for them, they just didn’t believe He was particularly interested in them, so they needed to go to Mary or some other saint to get His attention.
PHIL: They didn’t really have a full understanding of what we mean by Christ alone as the only mediator between God and man.
PHIL: We need a new Reformation today, don’t we, John?
JOHN: We do need a new Reformation. You know, people are probably wondering, “Why are we so fixated on the Reformation?” You know, in my lifetime I’ve always felt like I was trying to get the church to reform. And, Phil, you know, because you’ve been alongside of me all these years. But it’s always been about the gospel, hasn’t it, and the authority of Scripture. Everything I’ve ever written for the last fifty years is something about the Bible and its authenticity and its authority and its truth, or something about Christ and the gospel, or something about the church and how the church is to live and preach and proclaim.
PHIL: And in every case, you have been defending those historic and biblical truths against –
JOHN: Right. And even sola gratia. I mean, one of the first books I wrote was how to glorify God, the glory of God. And I’m circling back to that even now. I gave a message at the seminary the other day on glorifying God; and it’s not new to me, but it was like all the lights started going on with these young guys. And, yeah, I mean, we have been spending our whole life trying to defend and proclaim the solas.
PHIL: Yet, in fact, you bring up the last of the five solas: soli Deo gloria. Everything is for the glory of God; that’s an amazing truth when you think about it. That is the purpose for which everything was made. So people who say, “I need to find my purpose,” it’s pretty easy really, because there is only one ultimate purpose.
JOHN: That’s Romans 11, isn’t it, the benediction at the end, yeah. Everything is for Him; everything is for Him; everything is for Him. You know, people say, “Well, why is there evil in the world?” For the glory of God. “Why are there disasters in the world?” Ultimately for the glory of God. God will be glorified in absolutely everything. “Why does He save us?” Because He is gathering together a people to take to glory who will praise and honor and worship Him forever and ever and ever.
So that is the ultimate of everything. And I think it strikes a blow. It strikes a very, very deadly blow against that which is the most, I guess, dominant sin of humanity, and that is personal pride. And are we ever living in a world where pride is consuming everything and consuming everyone’s life. The narcissism, the self-promotion and self-preoccupation is unlike anything I’ve seen in the past. There was a kind of humility in some era of the past, even in my life; but that’s all gone now.
This is not a time when you hear people making an emphasis on glorifying God in everything you do; it’s more about, as you say, “What’s your purpose? What’s your goal? What are your dreams?”
You know, you hear these charismatics all the time saying, “Well, it’s all about you. Create your own world. Create your own dreams fulfill your own ambitions. You know, God’s just waiting to, you know, have you rub the little lamp and tell Him to jump out and give you what you want.” We’re so far away from glorifying God.
PHIL: And I think is the idea maybe most people have, that God exists to serve us rather than the other way around.
PHIL: In some ways this truth, though we’ve saved it till last: soli Deo gloria is the most foundational of all. I think if you really understood that truth, all these other doctrines would fall into place.
JOHN: Yeah, of course. And it is the overarching reality of all realities, that God has done everything for His own glory; and you have to understand that. And that the backside of that is that it’s never about me, it’s never about me. My life, my ministry is not about me. It’s not what I can achieve, what I can accomplish, what I can do; it’s all about God. It’s all about His honor, all about His glory.
I think that should be the dominating reality in a life of sanctification. I mean, that’s the question: “What would glorify God?” Glorify God. “Whether I eat or drink,” Paul says, “whatever I do, even something as mundane as that, do it all to the glory of God.” The “all” is the compelling think in that text in 1 Corinthians.
Do everything you do to the glory of God: “How will this glorify God? How will this bring honor to His name?” That’s how believers are to live their lives: to the glory of God, which struck a blow against the Roman Catholic system; because the glory of man was epidemic, the exaltation of man in that system, or in any false religious system, that man had taken the place of God. And that’s the element humbling truth, that God gets all the glory. “And I will not,” He says, “give My glory to another.”
PHIL: Great point. As harsh a blow as it strikes against the Roman Catholic system, it strikes a similar blow against each of us and our personal pride. Thanks for that, John.
JOHN: Yeah. And, you know, we might not like to see the pope getting glory to himself, but we also have to be aware that we as believers, and even as ministers, can look to get glory to ourselves as well.
PHIL: Sobering thought. Thanks for that, John, and thanks for this conversation. There’s nobody I’d rather talk about the Reformation with than you.
JOHN: It’s mutual. I feel the same way about you, Phil.
PHIL: I appreciate it. You always bring a biblical perspective to it; and that is our prayer here at Grace to You, that people will return to the Scriptures, focus on the Scriptures and the glory of God and the centrality of Christ, and the goodness of God’s grace and the freeness of salvation, and that hopefully in our lifetimes we’ll begin to see the beginning of a new Reformation.
JOHN: And the wonderful thing is, we don’t have to invent something new, we have a heritage of this truth. We ought to rejoice in it and be faithful to it.
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