Living Letters

Deuteronomy 6:1-6

From the Reformer

Inasmuch as his activity among them is his testimonial, and they themselves are aware that through his ministerial office he has constituted them a church, he calls them an epistle written by himself; not with ink and in paragraphs, not on paper or wood, nor engraved upon hard rock as the Ten Commandments written upon tables of stone, which Moses placed before the people, but written by the Holy Spirit upon fleshly tables—hearts of tender flesh. The Spirit is the ink or the inscription, yes, even the writer himself; but the pencil or pen and the hand of the writer is the ministry of Paul.

This figure of a written epistle is, however, in accord with Scripture usage. Moses commands (Deut 6:6-9; 11, 18) that the Israelites write the Ten Commandments in all places where they walked or stood upon the posts of their houses, and upon their gates, and ever have them before their eyes and in their hearts. Again (Prov 7:2-3), Solomon says: “Keep my commandments and…my law as the apple of thine eye. Bind them upon thy fingers; write them upon the tablet of thy heart.” He speaks as a father to his child when giving the child an earnest charge to remember a certain thing—“Dear child, remember this; forget it not; keep it in thy heart.” Likewise, God says in the book of Jeremiah the prophet (ch. 31, 33), “I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it.” Here man’s heart is represented as a sheet, or slate, or page, whereon is written the preached Word; for the heart is to receive and securely keep the Word. In this sense Paul says: “We have, by our ministry, written a booklet or letter upon your heart, which witnesses that you believe in God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and have the assurance that through Christ you are redeemed and saved. This testimony is what is written on your heart. The letters are not characters traced with ink or crayon, but the living thoughts, the fire and force of the heart.

Note further, that it is his ministry to which Paul ascribes the preparation of their heart thereon and the inscription which constitutes them “living epistles of Christ.” He contrasts his ministry with the blind fancies of those fanatics who seek to receive, and dream of having, the Holy Spirit without the oral word; who, perchance, creep into a corner and grasp the Spirit through dreams, directing the people away from the preached Word and visible ministry. But Paul says that the Spirit, through his preaching, has wrought in the hearts of his Corinthians, to the end that Christ lives and is mighty in them. After such statement he bursts into praise of the ministerial office, comparing the message, or preaching, of Moses with that of himself and the apostles. He says: “Such confidence have we through Christ to Godward: not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to account anything as from ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God

—Martin Luther, Assorted Sermons, “The Twofold Use of the Law and Gospel”

Pulling It Together

God has clearly shown himself by revelation of the spoken word, the written word, and the Living Word. He has breathed out that sufficient text for his people to live by; now it is time to breathe it in. Let it take hold in you and revive you. It will quicken you down to the innermost part of your being. Let the word of Christ (Col 3:16) come alive in you. Read the word; ponder it; listen to sermons; discuss the word; pray over it; sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Eph 5:19) that are filled with that good word. In doing so, you will find yourself being made into the word come to life—a living letter of God to the people around you.

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When Christ Calls

Mark 1:14-20

From the Reformer

The first thing that strikes us here is the power of Christ’s voice. Not that his voice alone makes so powerful an impression on the hearts of men: but those whom the Lord is pleased to lead and draw to himself, are inwardly addressed by his Spirit, that they may obey his voice. The second is, the commendation bestowed on the docility and ready obedience of his disciples, who prefer the call of Christ to all worldly affairs.

—John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke

Pulling It Together

When Christ calls, do not go back to your work or worry about your family or give another moment to idle pleasure without him. Keep looking full in his face. Be drawn all the way in to that beatific smile. Let your heart be called and captivated by Christ; give in to him and give up the world. He is what your work, family, and hobby can never supply, yet by his presence he will make them richer and fuller than you imagined possible.

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The Fading World

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

From the Reformer

Now, he draws his argument from the shortness of human life: “This life,” says he, “which we are now spending is frail, and of short duration. Let us not therefore be held entangled by it. Let those accordingly who have wives, be as though they had none.” Every one, it is true, has this philosophy in his mouth, but few have it truly and in good earnest impressed upon their minds. In my first translation, I had followed a manuscript, to which (as I afterwards discovered) not one of the many others gave any countenance. I have accordingly deemed it proper to insert the particle because, to make the meaning more apparent, and in accordance also with the reading in some ancient copies. For as in those cases in which we are deliberating as to anything, we look to the future rather than to the past, he admonishes us as to the shortness of the time that is to come.

—John Calvin, Commentary on Corinthians

Pulling It Together

Everyone has been asked the question, If you found out you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do with your today? Luther said he would do exactly what he was doing at that moment, plant an apple tree, as dying tomorrow changed nothing for him today. His heart had already been changed by the gospel and thus, his affairs were in order. When one has truly died, what affairs of the world are there to tend to? Christians then, live altogether differently than all the others of the earth for Christians have already died and they are thus no longer of this world. They do not fear death since they have already died. The world no longer has the same effect on their hearts, for their hearts have been changed by he who overcame the world. The result is that the Christian should be able to live without being entangled with the world, because this world is fading away.

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Preparation for Grace

Psalm 62:5-12

About the Reformer

Thus the monastic and ascetic life of Luther was a preparatory school for his evangelical faith. It served the office of the Mosaic law which, by bringing the knowledge of sin and guilt, leads as a tutor to Christ (Rm 3:20; Ga 3:24). The law convicted, condemned, and killed him; the gospel comforted, justified, and made him alive. The law enslaved him, the gospel set him free. He had trembled like a slave; now he rejoiced as a son in his father’s house. Through the discipline of the law he died to the law, that he might live unto God (Ga 2:19).

In one word, Luther passed through the experience of Paul. He understood him better than any mediaeval schoolman or ancient father. His commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians is still one of the best, for its sympathetic grasp of the contrast between law and gospel, between spiritual slavery and spiritual freedom.

—Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church

Pulling It Together

As the harsh winter winds bring freezing rain that cracks open the earth to receive the melting ice and snow, just so the Holy Spirit uses the trials of life to open wide our hearts to the blessings of God. Often the ones who have drowned in night sorrow are they who overflow with joy in the morning. Having been softened, they receive the word implanted and learn the joy of the gospel. Just like this, God uses his Law to open our hearts to the need for grace.

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Changed Hearts

Nineveh
Nineveh

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

From the Reformer

Long before the time of Moses, God justified men without the Law. He justified many kings of Egypt and Babylonia. He justified Job. Nineveh, that great city, was justified and received the promise of God that He would not destroy the city. Why was Nineveh spared? Not because it fulfilled the Law, but because Nineveh believed the word of God. The Prophet Jonah writes: “So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth.” They repented. Nowhere in the Book of Jonah do you read that the Ninevites received the Law of Moses, or that they were circumcised, or that they offered sacrifices.

All this happened long before Christ was born. If the Gentiles were justified without the Law and quietly received the Holy Spirit at a time when the Law was in full force, why should the Law count unto righteousness now, now that Christ has fulfilled the Law?

And yet many devote much time and labor to the Law, to the decrees of the fathers, and to the traditions of the Pope. Many of these specialists have incapacitated themselves for any kind of work, good or bad, by their rigorous attention to rules and laws. All the same, they could not obtain a quiet conscience and peace in Christ. But the moment the Gospel of Christ touches them, certainty comes to them, and joy, and a right judgment.

—Martin Luther, Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians

Pulling It Together

Sometimes it seems too easy. What happened to that guy? Why, I remember when he was the worst kind of sinner! It bothers some Christians that the joy of the Spirit is now available to some poor wretch. How could he find peace? Or more to the point, how could God extend it to the likes of him? Such pride! They know they have no cause for astonishment. God has always been in the business of saving lost souls. The grace of God has always been available to those of the changed heart.

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Seeing Clearly

Acts 8:18-23

From the Reformer

Simon answered. Hereby we gather that he did not so take that which Peter had threatened unto him, but that he did consider that his salvation was sought. And though Peter alone spake, yet he attributeth the speech unto all by reason of the consent. Now ariseth a question what we ought to think of Simon. The Scripture carrieth us no farther, save only unto a conjecture. Whereas he yieldeth when he is reproved, and being touched with the feeling of his sin, feareth the judgment of God; and that done, flieth unto the mercy of God, and commendeth himself to the prayers of the Church; these are assuredly no small signs of repentance; therefore we may conjecture that he repented. And yet the old writers affirm with one consent, that he was a great enemy to Peter afterward, and that he disputed with him by the space of three days at Rome. The disputation is also extant in writing under the name of Clement, but it hath in it such filthy dotings, that it is a wonder that Christian ears can abide to hear them. Again, Augustine, writing to Januarius, saith, that there were divers and false rumors spread abroad in Rome in his time concerning that matter. Wherefore, nothing is more safe than bidding adieu to uncertain opinions, simply to embrace that which is set down in the Scriptures. That which we read elsewhere of Simon may justly be suspected for many causes.

—John Calvin, Commentary on Acts

Pulling It Together

Simon had believed in the Lord but then continued in his wicked craft, mixing the devil with the Lord in his heart. These two cannot abide together long. Repentance is necessary. When rebuked by another Simon, scripture tells us that the sorcerer asked for prayers on his own behalf. This is a sign of repentance and much to his credit. Still, the Church has debated the genuineness of his repentance to the point we now call the selling of church offices, simony. Jesus had a teaching about this sort of debate: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but don’t consider the beam that is in your own eye?” (Matt 7:3) Very often the bitter and sinful heart that needs to change is not the one you into which you are looking. If we spent less time conjecturing about the Simons around us, and more time looking into our own condition, we would see more clearly.

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Unstable Security

Revelation 3:17-19

About the Reformer

In this University of Erfurt, there was a certain aged man in the convent of the Augustines with whom Luther, being then of the same order, a friar Augustine, had conference upon divers things, especially touching remission of sins; which article the said aged father opened unto Luther; declaring that God’s express commandment is that every man should particularly believe his sins to be forgiven him in Christ: and further said that this interpretation was confirmed by St. Bernard: “This is the testimony that the Holy Ghost giveth thee in thy heart, saying, thy sins are forgiven thee. For this is the opinion of the apostle, that man is freely justified by faith.”

By these words Luther was not only strengthened, but was also instructed of the full meaning of St. Paul, who repeateth so many times this sentence, “We are justified by faith.” And having read the expositions of many upon this place, he then perceived, as well by the discourse of the old man, as by the comfort he received in his spirit, the vanity of those interpretations, which he had read before, of the schoolmen. And so, by little and little, reading and comparing the sayings and examples of the prophets and apostles, with continual invocation of God, and the excitation of faith by force of prayer, he perceived that doctrine most evidently.

—John Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

Pulling It Together

He is poorest who finds his riches in himself. He is most blind who only sees himself. So often one can see that the person who acts most secure in their position is the one who is least stable. He who is most unstable is he who finds his security in himself. He has no ears and no heart except for his own words, his own thoughts, his own authority.

Is your conscience pricked? Is your wardrobe sullied? Is your purse filled with fool’s gold? It is time for redirection. The early Church in Laodicea needed redirection; Paul needed reproved for his self-righteousness; and Luther needed peace instead of the fear of God. We all need redirection and reform. This kind of true peace and stability is only known in Christ. All else, whether religion, church, family, vocation, or self, is false. Rely on the reliable. Depend upon Jesus.

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Life Without the Trappings

Hebrews 12:14-17

About the Reformer

…I did greatly long to see some ancient godly man’s experience, who had writ some hundreds of years before I was born; for those who had writ in our days, I thought, but I desire them now to pardon me, that they had writ only that which others felt, or else had, through the strength of their wits and parts, studied to answer such objections as they perceived others were perplexed with, without going down themselves into the deep. Well, after many such longings in my mind, the God in whose hands are all our days and ways, did cast into my hand, one day, a book of Martin Luther; it was his comment on the Galatians-it also was so old that it was ready to fall piece from piece if I did but turn it over. Now I was pleased much that such an old book had fallen into my hands; the which, when I had but a little way perused, I found my condition, in his experience, so largely and profoundly handled, as if his book had been written out of my heart. This made me marvel; for thus thought I, This man could not know anything of the state of Christians now, but must needs write and speak the experience of former days.

Besides, he doth most gravely, also, in that book, debate of the rise of these temptations, namely, blasphemy, desperation, and the like; showing that the law of Moses as well as the devil, death, and hell hath a very great hand therein, the which, at first, was very strange to me; but considering and watching, I found it so indeed. But of particulars here I intend nothing; only this, methinks, I must let fall before all men, I do prefer this book of Martin Luther upon the Galatians, excepting the Holy Bible, before all the books that ever I have seen, as most fit for a wounded conscience.

—John Bunyan, Preface to Grace Abounding

Pulling It Together

Too often we simply seek the so-called good that may come our way through someone’s acceptance. This is why Esau sought the blessing of Isaac. Esau’s mistake was in longing after the material goods in his father’s blessing instead of acting as one who is already loved and accepted—as Esau was by Issac. The greater good comes when one longs for the Father’s approval, despite any earthly good. This comes only after a change of heart. Life within his loving acceptance is a blessed life even without the trappings of wealth or health.

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Found By Christ

Philip, by Peter Paul Rubens

John 1:43-51

From the Reformer

There are many who engage in abstruse inquiries about Christ, but who throw such darkness and intricacy around him by their subtleties that they can never find him. The Papists, for example, will not say that Christ is the son of Joseph, for they distinctly know what is his name; but yet they annihilate his power, so as to hold out a phantom in the room of Christ. Would it not be better to stammer ridiculously, like Philip, and to hold by the true Christ, than by eloquent and ingenious language to introduce a false Christ? On the other hand, there are many poor dunces in the present day, who, though ignorant and unskilled in the use of language, make known Christ more faithfully than all the theologians of the Pope with their lofty speculations. This passage, therefore, warns us that, if any unsuitable language has been employed concerning Christ by ignorant and unlearned men, we ought not to reject such persons with disdain, provided they direct us to Christ; but that we may not be withdrawn from Christ by the false imaginations of men, let us always have this remedy at hand, to seek the pure knowledge of him from the Law and the Prophets.

—John Calvin, Commentary on John

Pulling It Together

Theologians and commentators may impress you with their knowledge, yet if you know Christ and are found in him, you have everything. One may have strong debating skills, finding an admiring audience—but never be found in Christ. It is better to find yourself found by Christ, as was Philip, than to be as Nathaniel, who seemed to have the greater knowledge, yet have no understanding.

What is your desire—to know Christ crucified and risen in your heart or to know things about him? Of course, both are beneficial but the former outweighs the latter in all respects.

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Keep Walking

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

From the Reformer

…it is unseemly and unlawful, that our body, which is consecrated to Christ, should be profaned by fornication, inasmuch as Christ himself has been raised up from the dead, that he might enter on the possession of the heavenly glory. The second is, that it is a base thing to prostitute our body to earthly pollutions, while it is destined to be a partaker along with Christ of a blessed immortality and of the heavenly glory. There is a similar statement in Co 3:1, “If we have risen with Christ,” etc., with this difference, that he speaks here of the last resurrection only, while in that passage he speaks of the first also, or in other words, of the grace of the Holy Spirit, by which we are fashioned again to a new life. As, however, the resurrection is a thing almost incredible (Ac 26:8) to the human mind, when the Scripture makes mention of it, it reminds us of the power of God, with the view of confirming our faith in it. (Mt 22:29)

—John Calvin, Commentary on Corinthians

Pulling It Together

There is no excuse for a wayward lifestyle but the powerful love of Christ will continue to draw you toward himself and right living—even when you have wandered off-course. On the journey, it is a good thing to remember you are found in him when it seems you have gotten lost on the way.

Nothing can separate you from the love of Christ. Nothing! In each situation of life—whether for good or ill—the believer must come back to this truth. You are “joined” to the Lord. You are “members of Christ,” “one flesh.” And so, one must give up the old ways for Christ. Yet when in this struggle, one falls down, it is good to be found in the presence of God’s mercy. Rise up. Struggle on. You will find you are found by one larger than yourself and closer than a spouse, who brings his grace to your disgrace. You can do this when you know you are bound not just to obedience, but to his love. Finding you are bound to this great love, you must and can rise and walk again when you have stumbled and fallen.

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