Of the many insults and accusations that were flung at Martin Luther and the other Reformers, one of the most common (and stinging) was that their “gospel of grace” de-motivated people from actually living a godly life. If heaven came free without works, what was the point of trying to be good?
And it wasn’t just in the Reformation: Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote in the early 20th century about the deadly effect of “cheap grace”—the idea that someone could accept the grace and forgiveness of Christ as a cheap gift requiring no response from us.
Does the Reformation gospel—the one that evangelicals still believe—cut off repentance and living a new life from the good news of Christ? Just what is the relationship between the gospel and the good life?
That’s the subject we’ll be discussing in episode 10 with our guest, theologian and church historian Marty Foord.
Links referred to:
- The Matthias Media special page
Runtime: 26:20 min.
Michael: Hello, everyone! And welcome to your first day in the afterlife. You were all, simply put, good people. But how do we know that you were good? How were we sure? During your time on earth, every one of your actions had a positive or a negative value, depending on how much good or bad that action put into the universe. Every sandwich you ate, every time you bought a magazine, every single thing you did had an effect that rippled out over time, and ultimately created some amount of good or bad. You know how some people pull into the breakdown lane when there’s traffic, and they think to themselves, “Oh, who cares? No one’s watching!” We were watching. Surprise!
Anyway, when your time on Earth has ended, we calculate the total value of your life using our perfectly accurate measuring system. Only the people with the very highest scores—the true cream of the crop—get to come here to The Good Place. What happens to everyone else, you ask? Don’t worry about it!
Tony Payne: Now, don’t worry; we haven’t gone full heresy here at the Centre for Christian Living podcast. That’s an excerpt from The Good Place, a new Netflix comedy about the afterlife, and about The Good Place and what it takes to get into it. And of course, in line with how human cultures and human religions have always thought, the concept is you get into heaven—you get into the Good Place, rather than the Bad Place—if the total of your good works outweighs the total of your bad works by some sort of margin. Now, we know, of course, that the gospel of Christ is actually the opposite—the antithesis—of this: it’s not the good people who get to go to the Good Place; it’s actually forgiven, bad people who go to the Good Place.
And in this Reformation year—this 500th celebration of the Reformation—we, of course, have been remembering and celebrating the recovery of that idea—that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in the death of Christ alone.
But of course, it’s still a very big question: what is the place of good works—of living the good life? It was a big question at the time of the Reformation, in the New Testament, and, of course, today as well. And that will be our topic in this episode of the Centre for the Christian Living podcast. Just what is the place of the good life in relation to the gospel?
TP: Hello, I’m Tony Payne, and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast, episode 10, coming to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. Our goal is to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues. And today, the everyday issue of Christian living we’re dealing with is really, “What is the motivation and drive for living a Christian life?” Where does the good life fit into the good gospel that we’ve received in the Lord Jesus Christ?
Now, at the time of the Reformation, this was a live and important question. If we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, then wheredoes the good life fit in? Where do good works fit in? Is this gospel of grace a license for us to do whatever we wish?
Now, the Reformers grappled with this question deeply. And in today’s episode, we’re going to learn from their thought process and their grappling with this issue, and understand afresh how the good life fits into the Christian life.
And our guest in thinking this through is a Moore College graduate: he was actually in my year at college. It’s Marty Foord.
Marty Foord: Yes, I’m Marty Foord. I teach systematic theology, Reformation church history and ethics at Trinity Theological College in Perth.
TP: Marty has done extensive research into this question we’re thinking about today—that is, how repenting or changing your life fitted into the gospel that was recovered at the Reformation.
But I started by asking him not so much about the gospel of Luther and the other Reformers, but about the gospel of medieval Catholicism—the gospel they were reacting against and trying to reform.
MF: Mmm. Yes, so what did the word “gospel” mean to … to Catholic theologians in the medieval era? They took it to mean a new law. That is, it was the new law as opposed to the old law—the old law of the Old Testament: what you find in the first five books of the Bible. They saw it as a new law—this is something that Jesus came to bring in. So it was new in the sense that it was salvation historical: Jesus brought in a whole lot of new teaching, etc. But it was a law in that this is a way that God would administrate the church. So the old law was old in that it was the old era of salvation history; the word “law” meant administration; God ruled over his people through that law; Jesus brings in a new law.
What did the new law consist of, as far as teaching went? Well, you know, the message that Jesus died and rose again, yes. But also the way Christians are to live. And when you read a lot of the medieval theology, when they spoke of the new law, they particularly focused on the Sermon on the Mount, because there, Jesus said, “You’ve heard it said”, so and so idea: “Don’t murder”. “But I tell you”—here’s the new law: “Do not hate”. And so there are all these discussions about how the new law is actually more rigorous for Christians to do, because Jesus has brought more revelation. But at its heart, this new law is about doing.
TP: So the medieval gospel was a gospel of a new law—a new way of living that Christ brings in and institutes; how was Luther’s gospel a critique of that? How did Luther react to that?
MF: Luther kept pouring over the Bible, obviously, and looking at what the word “gospel” meant. And he came to the conclusion that the gospel’s a word about redemption accomplished. Not redemption applied—not what we do; it’s all about what Christ has done. So it’s a word, and all you can do with that is believe it. By taking redemption applied out of the gospel, it then takes works out of salvation.
TP: Hence the big sort of summary that we associate with the Reformation—that now salvation is by grace through faith, not by works.
MF: That’s right. And I think with the particular emphasis that the gospel is all about Christ alone—what Christ has done, and not me. So Christ alone. Faith alone pins down Christ alone—saves that. And Christ alone shows us that God is a God of grace alone.
TP: So that the message of salvation was—rather than the proclamation of a new law—a new way for you to live—it was the proclamation of something accomplished on your behalf.
MF: Exactly. That’s right.
TP: Okay. So with the Reformation gospel, where does what we might call “repentance”—that is, turning around, starting to live a new life—where does it fit into the Reformation gospel? Because from what you’ve just said, it doesn’t seem to be part of the gospel. How do we deal with that?
MF: Yeah, well there was lots of controversy about that. So in Luther’s own tradition that became the Lutheran tradition, a controversy developed whereby Luther’s right-hand man, Philip Melanchthon, in his second version of his Loci Communes—“Common Places”—he started saying that the gospel also includes a call to repentance. And he had a whole lot of followers that joined him there. It particularly looked at the verse Luke 24:47, where repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be preached to all nations, and he said, “There’s the gospel: repentance and forgiveness of sins” or “repentance and faith”.
There were followers of—there were others in that tradition who claimed to be the true followers of Luther—and they said, “No, no, no, no, no: Luke 24:47 is not just a declaration of the gospel, it’s a declaration oflaw and gospel, because you cannot put repentance in the gospel. That would lead to salvation not by faith alone, but by faith in repentance; repentance would be a work; you’d be smuggling works in the back door.” So the natural place, then, to put repentance was the law, because the law, in the Lutheran tradition, is all about what I must do. Gospel is all about what Jesus has done.
TP: What about the other Reformers? What was their view on this matter?
MF: Yeah, so it’s fascinating to look at the Reformed tradition and see how it developed. You find a variety of views amongst the theologians in the Reformed tradition. But there is one particular view that developed with people like John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger, Johannes Oecolampadius, Martin Bucer—often names that we haven’t heard. What they wanted to do is they wanted to say, “Look, the gospel actually includes the call to repentance.” They took Luke 24:47 as being the sum of the gospel: Calvin says in his Institutes, “The sum of the gospel is repentance and forgiveness of sins.”1 That is, changing your life, placing your faith in Christ.
The big question, of course, that arises from that is, “Well, have the Reformed guys smuggled works in the back door?” Is justification now actually by faith and repentance? And the answer for them was, “No; the gospel does call you to repentance. But the repentance that Christians are to do is evidence that you’ve been saved. It’s to show forth that you’ve had the experience of salvation. It’s not to earn your salvation.”
TP: So the call of the gospel to repent in the Reformed side of the tradition is a call to, having put your faith in Christ, demonstrate that faith by living under his rule.
MF: Absolutely! Absolutely. It’s to show forth the new life that you’re now under Christ’s rule. I think it’s probably safe to say that they’d see repentance as starting before faith, and then being completed after faith.
TP: Well that’s interesting. What do you mean by that?
MF: So repentance starts with feeling the guilt of your sin. But the point of guilt is not to motivate you to change; it’s to show you what to change. And the point of that guilt, then, is to drive you to Christ—to seek God as a loving Father, who’s given you the Lord Jesus: he’s willing to forgive you. And then, out of that recognition that God is a loving Father, who only is there for your good and to do good to you—from that, then, comes the motivation to repent. So you could say guilt starts the process of repentance, but grace completes it.
TP: Would this connect with the statements we hear in the gospels where Jesus says, and John the Baptist also says, “Repent and believe the gospel”? There’s a proclamation of something: the kingdom of God is coming—God’s rule is here; it’s right in front of you; it’s staring you in the face. Your response is to repent and believe the gospel. How does that fit in, do you think? Is Jesus, at that level, saying that repentance is a turning around from your current position and putting your faith in this one now, as opposed to something else?
MF: Mmm. Yeah, Calvin spends a lot of time talking about that verse—“repent and believe the kingdom of God”, and, yes, it is about a turning, and it is a recognition that the kingdom of God has dawned. And a part of the kingdom of God, of course, is the reception of the forgiveness of sins, and being adopted into God’s family, and the recognition of that will lead to a full repentance.
So what they were wrestling with is a whole bunch of verses that say, for example, in Acts 11, where Peter talks about how the Gentiles had actually received the gospel and the Jews there said, “Oh, God has granted the Gentiles repentance unto life” or “repentance for life” (v. 18), so repentance seems to precede, actually, salvation there. And then we find other kinds of verses, like in Romans 3, where it talks about God’s kindness leads us to repentance (v. 4), or in Titus 2, where it’s the grace of God that teaches us or trains us to say “No” to ungodly (vv. 11-12)—so it’s the message of grace. And they said, “Well, does repentance come before or after?” It’s actually both. So it’s this whole idea: repentance starts with guilt, there’s a place for guilt, guilt shows us what to change, but it’s the gospel message of grace that actually gives us the motivation to change. So you need to have both of those being preached all the time. You can’t—the gospel doesn’t mean you dispense with guilt; you still need the message of grace. But you’re not going to understand grace—you’re not going to know what to turn from—unless you’ve got the message of guilt.
TP: Until you recognise that you have to—that if repentance is basically about turning—about changing—about turning around from my current direction and going in a whole new direction, you need a recognition of what that current state is—that current direction. There’s a dawning awareness that I’m dreadfully and terribly in the wrong, that my whole world is misshapen and misconstructed on a lie, and I need to turn around from that and grasp hold of this—
MF: Absolutely. Absolutely. And that makes sense of Jesus’ words when he says, “I tell you who to fear: you need to fear him, who can destroy your body and soul” (Matt 10:28) and now—not just fear the person who can destroy your body, but actually fear, in the sense of be scared of the person, who can actually destroy both body and soul in hell. So there is a healthy fear there. But at the same time, that shows us what to change. But that’s actually not going to give us the motivation to change—until we recognise that God is a loving Father in the gospel to us.
And Calvin spends a lot of time in his Institutes talking about that and saying, “You’ll never ever change whilst you’re scared of God. You’ll only—your life will only change when you recognise that God is a Father. What does it mean for God to be a Father? That he loves his sons and daughters, and only does good to them and is benevolent to them.”
TP: So am I right in thinking that, in your view, the Reformed tradition maybe got the emphasis right on this in the way that, as the Lutheran tradition developed, it might have missed the place of repentance?
MF: I think so. I think so. I don’t want to be too hard on Lutheran tradition, because it gives a good strong prominence to the gospel, and lots in the Reformed tradition don’t do that. But I think it’s severed a very important link that the gospel has with the new life that we’re to live. And if all the gospel declares is that you’ve been forgiven and nothing more, not about living out this wonderful new life, show it forth, then the gospel doesn’t actually have a direct link to the new life that we’re to live.
TP: Do you see that today?
MF: I do! I do. And I see that emphasis coming out in certain … certain quarters of evangelicalism, where lots of parts of the Bible is just all about not being saved by works, but by grace, and you’re actually never get to the point of this wonderful new life we’re to live—not a new life that earns us salvation, but a new life of salvation—of that redemption that Christ has won—of it applied in our lives.
I like to think of it in this way: the gospel not only talks about a change of position before God, but it also talks about a change of condition inside ourselves. And you want to keep the pos ition and the condition together. Jesus’ death particularly deals with our position. But Jesus’ resurrection and the transformation of human nature—that particularly deals with our condition. And so the whole idea of the new birth—the change of heart—that God’s going to take away a heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh—that’s particularly linked, say, in 1 Peter 1, to the resurrection of Christ—to this new creation power that starts in us. That is actually wonderful news! So we’re not only just simply put in a right position before God, but we’re actually—or the process of being made right in our hearts has begun. That’s wonderful news!
TP: Well, back to Marty Foord and more about that wonderful news in just a few moments. But in the meantime, a couple of quick things.
Firstly, please do subscribe to this podcast. You can do so at iTunes or Stitcher or SoundCloud, or any of those sort of places. And while you’re there, leave us a review. We love to hear some feedback about how you’re enjoying the podcast, or some other topics you’d like us to cover. And it’s also really useful for other people. Reviews and ratings lift the podcast up in people’s visibility on their devices, and help them discover the Centre for Christian Living podcast. It would be terrific if you’d helped us do that. And help other people by helping them to discover that we exist.
The second thing to mention are our book specials this month. They feature the late great John Chapman, and two of his resources—both about the topic we’re discussing today. The first is called A Sinner’s Guide to Holiness and it’s really just that: what does it mean as a forgiven sinner to live a holy and godly life, and how do those two things fit together? That’s the topic we’re discussing, and Chappo deals with them in his typically warm, clear, humorous and helpful way. A Sinner’s Guide to Holiness. It’s a short book in the Guidebooks for Life series. You’ll really enjoy it.
And related to that, there’s a video version of the content of the book called From Sinner to Saint, and it’s a six-part sort of video course that you can do in a small group with some discussion questions and Bible Study and so on. So that’s A Sinner’s Guide to Holiness and From Sinner to Saint—both by John Chapman—are excellent resources on the topic we’re talking about today.
The other two resources that are available for this month are Reformation resources that you’ve heard about already, if you’ve been listening to our podcast—that is, Ideas That Changed the World, which is a four-part video-based course for a small group to understand the Reformation and the key personalities and ideas that shaped it. And secondly, Kirsten Birkett’s excellent, short little summary of the main ideas and people of the Reformation, called The Essence of the Reformation. And all those resources are available at matthiasmedia.com.au/ccl/. You should check them out.
But back to my conversation with Marty Foord.
TP: So we’ve been talking about how the gospel of the Reformation was a revolution. It was a completely different message of salvation, and it placed the way we live our lives in response to salvation—the godliness, the repentance—it placed that in an entirely new configuration. What difference did that make to ordinary people as this new gospel was preached?
MF: Huge difference, because there’s a whole new way of thinking about God—a whole new way of thinking about how the universe functions. So the medieval Catholic way of understanding how God works in the world is often spoken of as a sacramental universe. All that simply means is that God’s power comes to us through various church rituals. That immediately ties me to the priesthood. It ties me to good works, like going on a pilgrimage, for example. One of the big things that changed at the Reformation is that way that God works in the world now understood is not through ritual, but through hearing the gospel, placing your faith in Christ, and the change of life in repentance. So all of a sudden, Luther started to promote verses like Galatians 5:6, where Paul says, “The only thing that counts”—in other words, this is the heart of the Christian life—“is faith expressing itself in love”. So it’s not about going on pilgrimages, rituals, beating the bounds—all this kind of business; it’s actually going about loving your neighbour: because you trust Christ that you are completely saved; you have a new identity in him; let’s now live out this new identity—that you’re a loved child of God. And so, all of a sudden, the Reformers—helping the poor, helping their neighbour, just trying to live honest, godly lives.
TP: It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the—even though each era and each place has its own way of getting things wrong, how—what a common thread that idea is throughout history, and even today, that being a Christian is about doing certain religious things. It’s about going to church. It’s about having a good worship experience. It’s about things associated with your attendance at a religious place. As opposed to it being just as much, if not more, about loving your neighbour, reaching out to your neighbour. Seeing your neighbour as a lost person.
TP: Seeing your neighbour as someone in need.
MF: Yeah. Yeah, well if the greatest command is to love God and then love your neighbour as yourself, then love’s at the heart of the Christian life. Love’s all about relationships. So you really see the Christian life outworking itself in relationships. And loving your neighbour, if you really love your neighbour, you want to see them come to Christ. You’ll do everything you can to bring them to Christ. And when you go to church, the big thing for you there is to love your brothers and sisters in Christ, and want to see them grow, and want to encourage them and strengthen them. Whenever you come across your brothers and sisters in Christ, you’re there to love them, to build them up, to help them, to encourage them, to point them to the Lord Jesus. Yeah, that’s now the heart of the Christian life.
TP: So it transforms not only your understanding of religious paraphernalia—
TP: —and religious activities, it also really transforms your understanding of church and of everyday life—
TP: —and integrates them, because they’re—in both cases, it’s about a loving—going out—an outward focus to the other person, and for their benefit and in growth in Christ.
MF: Yeah, this is the big change that Luther ushered in. So at Luther’s time, you had kind of the three supposed groupings in society: you had the nobility that did the fighting; then you had the peasants who kind of worked for the nobility, ’cause the nobility protected them; and then you had the spiritual estate. These were the monks or the nuns. So the nobility, the peasants: they were not spiritual. And you couldn’t call them spiritual.
Luther comes along and sees that the Christian life is actually all about faith expressing itself in love. So everything’s spiritual. Changing a baby’s nappies is spiritual. You’ve got these wonderful statements about how the mother who’s rocking the cradle is doing more than all the monks and nuns throughout Europe.2 And this kind of thing. And that going—being a shoemaker: you express your Christian life in doing that—making fantastic shoes, charging a good price for it, helping your neighbour in that way.3 Suddenly all of life is transformed. This is actually going to have a massive effect on Western culture as a result.
TP: So in loving people—going out from ourselves to others—living in a universe that’s not a sacramental one, where God doesn’t approach us and relate to us through signs and sacraments and rituals, but through a word, what’s, then, the place of the word in our love and relationship with other people? How does that work?
MF: Yeah. Well, the word is a word of love—all about how God is a Father to us, because he’s given us the Lord Jesus Christ. And so, the gospel at the end of the day—what we place our faith in, Calvin will emphasise, is the fact that God is a good loving Father to us. So it’s not just believing facts—that Jesus died and rose again; yes, that’s true. But it’s in those facts you recognise that God is a Father, that he loves us. When we recognise how loving God is and how loved we are, that then frees us up to love others. So much of where we don’t love is because our identity’s not in Christ. We’re trying to create our identity ourselves: we get jealous or envious of others. And so, we don’t love; we actually end up using others for ourselves.
TP: And I guess it’s also true, then, that in our love for other people, because we’ve received that word—because we understand the world now that way—we share that word with others. We—in building up a Christian friend and loving them that way, or seeking to love our neighbours and build them up, and build them towards Christ … it’s not by taking them to the priest to get the priest to do a ritual for them; it’s by speaking the word.
MF: Absolutely. Absolutely. So the word—you love God so much, and that word is so wonderful to you; it’s your everything. You can’t help but want to share it. You might be stumbling in the way that you share it, but you just love to share it, because that’s what people need.
TP: Well that’s about it for this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast. Thanks for being with us. Thanks, too, to Marty Foord for sitting down and talking with us; to Karen Beilharz for her excellent help in so many ways here at CCL; to Luke Payne and Slow Nomad for the music.
Please do leave us a comment or a review, and any questions you’d like to ask following on from this episode or any topics you’d like to cover, just get in touch with us: send us a email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or go over to our website and check out all the other resources and articles and videos and stuff that’s available there. That’s ccl.moore.edu.au.
Well, thanks for being with us. I’m Tony Payne. ’Bye for now.
1 John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.3.1.
2 Martin Luther, “The estate of marriage” (1522), in Luther’s Works, Vol 45.
3 Martin Luther, “Sermon in the Castle Church at Weimar” (25 October 1522, Saturday after the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity), in D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 60 vols,Herman Böhlaus Nachfolger, Weimar, 1883–1980, 10/3:382.