Moderator's Comments - Posted 29 October 2016

Light trumps darkness

Reformation trumps Halloween. In fact it’s no contest.

For reasons unclear to me we’re being enticed by a dark festival of American origins that brings stocks of evil and bizarre to shelves where weeks before fresh food or other cheery merchandise sat. In supermarkets and $2 shops throughout Australia, the dark, the gruesome, the macabre and the scary hold sway.

Why witches hats, ghoulish masks and spider webs? As if swinging with the breeze, parents bend to accommodate this strange festival, children are attracted to it and society is the worse for it.

By strange coincidence, the same weekend as Halloween, the Presbyterian Church of Australia celebrates light.

PCA celebrates the light Luther brought into the open

Perhaps you think it’s odd to celebrate the posting of 95 theses to Wittenberg’s chapel door. It wasn’t a momentous occasion. Nothing much happened that day. Luther didn’t lose sleep over it. It was far more likely he was losing sleep at facing his exegesis class on Monday morning. It was his students who took the note down, raced it off to the printer’s shop and published it - not the young doctor. By the next morning, in our terms, the 95 theses were already posted on FB and the PCA website.

It wasn’t even the pinnacle of his career … it wasn’t his day of discovery in the tower. It had none of the theatre of his famous retort at the Diet of Worms or his raw courage before the Emperor, or the spectacle of the bonfire. On the contrary, it was as if he’d just published an article in AP – open for discussion, ready for dissection. Yet it was a signal event used of God to awaken the church and change the world.

Luther wasn’t looking for a stoush with the church – but was brought into the limelight reluctantly because of the sensitivities of his pastoral heart. Johan Tetzel’s drum was part of the Indulgence Circus that’d come to town. Luther indignantly said: “I will make a hole in his drum.”

Bishop Albert set his heart on one of the highest rewards in the church – to him, it glistened like gold. He wanted to be Archbishop of Mainz, so he borrowed ten thousand gold florins from the Fuggers – German entrepreneurial bankers. Estimating from the gold content of this ancient coin, we might say 10,000 gold florins is like taking a loan of two million dollars from the monopoly bankers of Europe.

Indulgences was a scheme through which half the proceeds went to Albert for repayment of the loan and the other half went to the pope to re-build and replenish St Peters.

Luther understood the gospel sufficiently to see that you cannot buy and sell forgiveness. He was outraged to see his parishioners torn apart by mercenaries. He probably didn’t grasp the gospel brilliantly at this stage of his journey, but he knew enough to know that Tetzel’s drum beat to damnable music.

PCA celebrates the light that flooded Luther’s heart

When he was a young priest, Luther was extraordinarily good at being a monk. He plunged into prayer, fasting and other ascetic practices. He’d deprive his body of sleep; he’d endure bone-chilling coldness without blankets. He said: “the frost alone nearly killed me.”

Speaking of this foolishness: “If ANYONE could have earned heaven by monkery, it was I.” He’d even done the ultimate – a visit to the holy city of Rome, and climbed the famous Santa Scala on his knees, repeating the paternoster prayer on each marble step. Yet, instead of finding peace … doubt and torment increased.

At times he was overcome with fear. The question constantly nagged at him: how could he escape God’s judgment of his sin? He was increasingly terrified of the wrath of God. He felt unworthy of God - not convinced that he would be saved. Luther sometimes found that he hated God. Even after the most painstaking confession, he was plagued with doubts as to whether he’d remembered every sin. What if he’d missed some? Confession was hard work!

Luther wasn’t a novice in the Scriptures. In his own words: “I knew them nearly all by memory”. Dr Luther had been lecturing in the Scriptures for seven years, invited by the faculty of Wittenberg University to teach theology. He’d been teaching through Psalms, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews and now he was preparing to return to the Psalms for a 2nd treatment.

Early in 1519, Luther said: “I was captivated by a single word of Paul in Romans 1:17.” “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”

Luther hated that word “righteousness” (from God), which he’d been taught was the avenging righteousness of God by which he punishes the sinner. He found God’s righteousness unbearable because it wagged an accusing finger at him. The thought that it was revealed AGAINST him was too much for Luther. There was no comfort in this verse.

Then, in the tower room, the answer dawned. It struck him like lightning: the righteousness of Romans 1:17 doesn’t refer to the punishment of sinners, rather, it’s righteousness that’s GIVEN to sinners. He said: “This was like a thunderbolt in my heart.”

This was like Paul’s Damascus Road experience. In Luther’s own words: “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. The whole of Scripture had new meaning. That place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.”

PCA celebrates the light of sola fide

How does righteousness come? The sinner is given righteousness simply because God wishes to give it. Faith is the way God provides it, not the result. This gift is by imputation on the basis of faith alone. It’s an alien righteousness because it’s alien to man – it comes from outside of him.

Luther puts it this way: “See how the earth cannot and does not DO anything to acquire, by its own strength, the rain it needs to accomplish growth. The dry earth is utterly passive as the Lord sends rain to it as a gift so that it may function as the creator intended and may accomplish much. The earth, while waiting to be watered, cannot judge, renew and rule the heavens. It is the heavens that judges, renews, rules and enlivens the earth so that it may do what the Lord intended it to do.”

J C Ryle says: “Of all Christian graces, faith is the most important. Of all, it is the simplest in reality. Of all, it is the most difficult to make men understand in practice. The mistakes into which men fall about it are endless.”

Throughout the Presbyterian Church of Australia we have an enviable theological unity. In part, this is because of our commitment to the Scriptures as the inerrant word of God, and to the expression of Scriptural doctrine as set out in the Westminster standards. However, we must be watchful – there is no guarantee that such unity will never dissipate. Allegiance to sola fide, and the consequential understanding of justification by faith, is one of the tests. It’s rightly considered as the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls.

The PCA must stay focused on the light

Celebrate the light, live in the light, stay focused on the light.

Luther’s pastoral warning for the church at Wittenberg, is our warning: “We here in Wittenberg have acquired the form of a Christian church … the Word is taught purely, the sacraments are used properly, there are exhortations and prayers … everything is moving along well. But some fanatic could stop this blessed progress of the gospel in a hurry, and in one moment could overturn everything that we have built up.”

John P Wilson
Moderator-General, PCA