The Reformation Revisited in Ancaster, Canada
"Does the church still need free grace?" To answer the question Rev. Mark Vander Hart travelled from Dyer, Indiana to Ancaster, Ontario on October 31, to give his affirmation to what was – in the confines of a receptive Reformed audience – an obvious answer.
Obvious as it was however, it was clear from the Mid-America Seminary professor’s presentation at Redeemer College on Reformation Day evening that the central thrust of the 16th century Reformation led by Martin Luther needed to be underscored in our day.
Before an audience of approximately 700 listeners, Vander Hart retraced events in the early – 1500s in the life of a solitary man used by God to reawaken His people to the truth of salvation – that it is wholly and completely a work of Gods sovereign grace in Jesus Christ.
Vander Hart noted that the matter came down to what we understand by the word "grace."
"The church of the middle ages believed in grace," said Vander Hart. "In fact the Roman church has seven sacraments that are said to impart grace … , grace from womb to tomb."
But the grace of the Reformation, he asserted, is not dependent in any way on the merit of the sinner. "Grace is power, given in mercy, to God’s elect to save them to the uttermost, and that without any convenient contribution of the sinner," said Vander Hart. Instead it is rooted in the "solas for the Reformation" (faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, etc.), which despite their differences both Luther and John Calvin agreed upon. "Anything else," Vander Hart said, "would put our redemption into question … it would take away from the glory of God."
The associate professor of Old Testament said the Reformers believed very much in the power of the devil, and wondered if that same belief was still alive today. "Do you believe in the depth of human depravity? Do you hear preaching that reflects this understanding?"
Luther knew the depths of sin in his own heart and the need for daily atonement. Vander Hart traced the Roman Church’s understanding of that human dilemma facing man and the solution to that dilemma as embraced by the church. While faith offered a partial response, God offered the way out by providing a contract with the sinner. The contract was, "one must do his best, and grace would complete what was lacking."
"The church of Luther’s day insisted that the righteousness that made one right with God," Vander Hart explained, "was an infused righteousness, a righteousness within the person himself. But this was never perfect, and the sinner could never be absolutely sure that he was really right with God."
Yet God was gracious in directing Luther’s study of the Word, leading him in his understanding that "through faith the righteous shall live." Luther was moved by Romans 1:16-1 7 and added the word "alone" to "through faith alone", which Vander Hart said was a "faithful translation of Scripture" based on Galatians 2:19-21.
"Good works," said the speaker, "do not earn salvation; good works flow thankfully out of salvation. God saves His elect by His righteousness in Christ, and thus we live by faith, by faith alone, from first to last." Such convictions, Vander Hart said,
became the foundation for the outpouring of joy that was characteristic of so many of the Reformation people.
And knowledge of God’s free grace in turn sets forgiven sinners free from fear – from the fear of devils, from the fear of corrupt rulers, from the fear of persecution, all of which the Reformers could genuinely be fearful of, given the times. "Yet free grace sets people free from all earthly powers," said Vander Hart. "Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also – do we really believe this?"
"Such courage, such faith, such devotion is still needed in the church of Jesus Christ today.
Touching on justification and sanctification, Vander Hart said that how we are saved and how we live are two different questions and must never be confused. "Salvation is Christ’s work alone," said Vander Hart. "Our lives are thankful responses. But if a pastor preaches something else, let him be accursed," he said, echoing the words of the apostle Paul.
Addressing Luther’s understanding of the law, Luther said himself that "the particular and only office of the law is, as St. Paul teaches, that transgressions thereby should be acknowledged…. Yet Luther adds, "when, indeed, justification is not the matter at hand, we ought highly to esteem the law, extol it, and with St. Paul, call it good, true, spiritual, and divine, as in truth it is."
"How we are saved, and how we live are different questions. We are saved by sovereign grace alone, and we live by every word that proceeds out of God’s mouth," Vander Hart said, following up his comments by quoting Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 60 and Article 22 of the Belgic Confession.
Concluding his presentation, Vander Hart said, "Perhaps the question is really this: ‘Does the Reformed Church still believe in free grace?’ Does the Reformed community understand that electing grace is sovereign love that starts a good work and will certainly finish that work in us, not because of any works on our part, but because we need divine mercy in Jesus Christ from beginning to end. For in all the discussions we hear and in all the articles we read lately in Christian periodicals, listen closely for what they say about Jesus Christ and His finished work. Does the full and free grace in Christ get merely lip service, or does it get center stage?"
"This is the teaching of Scripture," said Vander Hart. "This is our heritage…. This is what we must teach the next generation."
John van Dyk
Christian Renewal November 24, 2003 by permission
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