Friday, December 18, 2009

Fresh Snow On Luther's Dunghill - What Evangelicals Forget And Catholics Don't Get

I awoke this morning and peered out the window. I felt like a space traveller viewing a new planet from the safety of my spacecraft. The first fresh snowfalls of this winter had blanketed the bleak and dark Danish landscape transforming it to a beautiful and unblemished white. It instantly brought to mind the book by James White I am currently reading called The God Who Justifies.

In this book Dr. White devotes a chapter to what he calls Luther's dunghill. Luther was known for his "earthy" illustrations and this was no exception. Luther spent most of his life in a region not far from where I live where the climate and landscape were similar. The pretty countryside of summer gradually disappears with the chilling onset of the fall. The days grow shorter and darker, the vegetation becomes leafless and barren, and the great outdoors becomes a place of constant cloud cover with driving wind and rain. And to cap it all off, in Luther's day, the farmers, in desperate need of fertilizer:

would collect the refuse of their farm animals into piles to be spread out on the fields when the weather demanded. These "dunghills" would dot the landscape and were anything but attractive to either see or smell. Drawing on this commonplace occurrence, Luther once attempted to demonstrate the difference between justification and sanctification. He likened our sinful state to a dunghill: ugly and offensive, it has nothing in and of itself that would make it pleasing to anyone, let alone God.

This is what we are like in our sin. There is nothing that would recommend us to God, nothing that is acceptable, nothing that merits His blessing. We are foul and repulsive in our sin . . . Justification, he went on, is like that first snowfall of the approaching winter, the one that covers everything in a blanket of pure white. Unlike later snowfalls, where man has shoveled and plowed and otherwise worked to clear a path for himself, that first snow is clean, beautiful. Everything is covered in the same uniform blanket - even, Luther points out, those piles of dung. What was once foul is no longer. The smell is gone. The repulsive sight is gone. All is white and clean and pure.

This is how justification differs from sanctification. In justification we receive the pure and spotless righteousness of Christ, a blanket that covers over our sin in the sight of the Father. The dunghill is still, intrinsically and internally, a dunghill - that hasn't changed. What has changed is its relationship to an external standard - God's standard.

That first snowfall, the righteousness of Christ, an alien righteousness, the righteousness of another, is imputed to us, covering us and removing our offensiveness before God the Father. We do remain sinners inwardly; it is the work of sanctification that changes us internally, conforming us ever closer to the image of Christ. (The God Who Justifies p119-120)

As I gaze out my window I behold this rare moment of beauty on the long dark night of winter in Northern Europe. The purity of the fresh snow not only conceals the mud beneath, but it creates light and visibility during these short days. The dunghills Luther spoke of were covered by the snow but it did not make them go away. So too, our sinful nature does not leave, but is still there warring against the spirit of a new creation in Christ. It is here where the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit begins growing us in holiness and conformity to Christ. Our good works, or fruit of the Holy Spirit, contribute nothing to God's legal verdict of justification. But they do give outward evidence of the Spirit's inner transforming work. If the outward evidence is not appearing we have cause to heed Paul's words to the Corinthians and:

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?--unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Corinthians 13:5)

For centuries (millenia perhaps) Catholics have confused this vital line of distinction between justification and sanctification. This has played a major role in their devolopment of an apostate works righteous religion where human works make a contribution to our salvation. James White continues:

In the Roman Catholic system our dunghill would become a pile of gold through the "laver of regeneration", baptism. It would then be internally changed and made pleasing to God.

However, the pile of gold may commit sins during the course of its life on earth. Some sins, it is said, do not destroy the grace of justification that has turned the dunghill into a pile of gold. These are called venial sins. But there are punishments, temporal punishments, that come with such sins. We would liken these to flecks or globs of dung that appear on the surface of the gold . . . this leads to the catholic doctrine of purgatory, the idea of a place of cleansing after death but before the entrance into the presence of God. But what about those serious sins that do, in fact, destroy the grace of justification? These "mortal" sins would instantaneously turn the pile of gold back into a pile of dung. The dunghill must then rely upon other remedies to regain the grace of justification (the sacrament of penance, in this particular case) and again become a pile of gold. Yet there can be temporal punishments for mortal sins as well, so even though the dunghill becomes a gold pile, it's not a perfect gold pile - it still must be concerned about self-purification.

The worst thing with such a system is this: the pile never knows whether it is gold or dung. Since there are requirements that must be fulfilled to obtain justification and maintain it, one can never know if everything that needs to be done has been done.

And so the real issue of this entire study comes to the fore. Is salvation the work of God? Does God save, perfectly, completely, in accordance with His own purpose and grace? Or is the Gospel a "maybe", a "do this and live". Is it a matter of "done in Christ Jesus", or is it "do with help and assistance from God"? (The God Who Justifies p121-122)

White summises the liberating truth that delivers us from this quagmire of Catholic bondage when he says "clothed in the righteousness of Christ that is ours by faith and faith alone - this is the hope of the believer.

This is the major line (though there are several others) that seperates Christianity from Roman Catholicism. This is the core of what the reformation was fought over and many lost their lives in the process and don't think for one minute that this gulf that divides has disappeared. The Catholic sponsored Council of Trent has not been revoked which, to this day, clearly states:

"If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema" (Council of Trent, Canons on Justification, Canon 9).

Anathema, according to Catholic theology, means excommunication, the exclusion of a sinner from the society of the faithful. Roman Catholic theology therefore pronounces a curse of excommunication, of being outside the camp of Christ, if you believe that you are saved by grace through faith alone in Jesus. Do not be deceived by attempts at Christian unity with Catholics. The reformers fought for the truth of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone - and so must we!

May the first snow each winter remind us of the glorious doctrine of justification, how wonderful it is, how precious it is, and why we must fight for our lives to defend it - just as Luther did here 500 years ago!


Layman Harry said...

Thank you for this. I have been posting about Justification lately, and yours is a useful timely perspective. I am recommending it to my readers (both of them).

Apeleutheros said...

Excellent post Cameron.

Do you think you would be able to check the resource James White is drawing from? I'd like to save Luther's original quote in a word file.



Cameron Buettel said...

Sorry Shaun, just check chapter 8 of the book or e-mail James White. I have a link to his ministry on the post. Just click on his name.

Apeleutheros said...