2) Mission of Jesus/Nature of God's Kingdom
3) Radical call to discipleship
Mark 5:1-20 (Demoniac)
Mark 5:21-34 (Sick woman)
Mark 5:35-43 (Jairus' daughter)
Some concluding thoughts (see also here and here) on Stuart Olyott's article in the Banner Magazine for December 2009 entitled Where Luther Got It Wrong - and Why We need To Know about It. I especially want to focus on his claim that the doctrine of "mediate regeneration" as he calls it will be the ruin of gospel work in the UK. Why does he take issue with the idea that the Word is the instrument by which the Spirit brings a person to new life in Christ? We start with his proposed definition of the new birth,
"Regeneration is a supernatural enlightenment of the human soul brought about by the direct and immediate energy of the Holy Spirit working within that soul. There is nothing 'mediate' about it. It is not brought about by some influence or instruction from outside, but by the implanting of new spiritual life inside." (p. 26)
This statement is typical of what might be found in the standard works of Reformed systematic theology. Olyott stresses the unmediated character of regeneration in order to safeguard the sovereignty of the Spirit. He wants to avoid any suggestion that the Word inhrently contains the Spirit's saving power. But is it right to suggest that regeneration is ordinarily an immediate act of the Spirit apart from the instrumentality of the Word? Part of the problem is that the discourse of systematic theology is not always the same as that of the Bible itself. Systematics in its drive for conceptual clarity can sometimes ride roughshod over the differing nuances of the biblical material. Regeneration, or being born again is sometimes described in the Bible as a work of the Spirit without mention of the instrumentality of the Word. The classic passage is John 3:3-8. But this is not the whole story. Other texts attribute the new birth to God working by his Word, James 1:18, 1 Peter 1:23. Olyott is aware of this and addresses the issue in his article. He suggests (p. 28) that these verses are "not [about] the act of germination (where new life comes into being) but to the moment of birth (where a new life becomes visible)." But I'm not sure that such a distinction can be justified. Biblical writers use a variety of terminology to refer to the same saving event. In the Gospel According to John Jesus speaks of being "born again" (John 3:3, 8), Paul writes, "if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17), he teaches that the dead in sin are "made alive" (Ephesians 2:5), and uses the language of "regeneration" (Titus 3:5). In each case Scripture is referring to God's great work of bringing the dead in sin to new life in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Also, take Peter's teaching on the new birth in his First Epistle. In 1 Peter 1:3, we read that "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ...has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead". This stands in parallel with what Paul says in Ephesians 2:4-5, where God makes those who were dead in sin alive together with Christ. In neither case is the Word explicitly mentioned as an instrument of regeneration. However, Peter uses the same Greek word in 1 Peter 1:3 (translated "begotten again" NKJV) and 1 Peter 1:23 (translated "born again" NKJV). Note that in the latter text we read, "having been born again... through the word of God". The word is the "incorruptible seed...which lives and abides forever". This "word" is identified with the gospel that was originally preached to Peter's readers, 1 Peter 1:23-25. For Peter the Word of the gospel is clearly the means by which God begets us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Reformed systematic theology needs to be revised to take this fact into account (see John Murray's attempt to do this in The Collected Works of John Murray Volume 2, Banner of Truth Trust, p. 196-198).
“I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start trouble . . . I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor wouldn’t have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug’s game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word." Martin Luther
According to Stuart Olyott, writing in the December 2009 edition of The Banner of Truth magazine, Luther got it wrong in the statement quoted above - and we need to know why. I am in broad sympathy with the drift of Olyott's article. He is right to say that the Word alone can accomplish nothing and that the power of the Spirit is needed to make the Word effective. But I don't believe that Luther was incorrect to speak as he did. The first thing to remember is that what we have here is not a piece of dogmatic theology where Luther was attempting to capture all the nuances of biblical teaching in one statement. It was a quickfire response to someone who asked him how the Reformation happened. We don't need to include everything the Bible teaches on a subject in order to say something meaningful and true. To suggest that we do is to go beyond the pattern of Scripture itself.
Luther's words are comparable with what Luke says in Acts where he attributes the growth of the church to the Word of God (Acts 6:7, 12:24, 19:20). Now, Luke sets such statements in the context of the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5-8, 2:1-4). He makes it clear that preachers need to be filled with the Spirit to empower them to proclaim the word boldly and effectively, (Acts 4:31). But he did not feel the need to qualify what he said in Acts 6:7 in order to bear this out by saying something like, "Then the word of God spread by the power of the Holy Spirit and the number of the disciples were multiplied greatly". Where the agency of the Word alone is mentioned in Scripture it is assumed but not always stated that it was the Holy Spirit who made the word effective in the salvation of sinners. Often Scripture explicitly links Word and Spirit together (1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 1 Thessalonians 1:5), but not in every case. This is analogous to Calvin's point that whenever Scripture attributes salvation solely to the cross of Jesus, his resurrection is always assumed and when salvation is attributed solely to his resurrection, the cross is always assumed.
Luther knew very well that the Reformation was not the product of the bare Word of God. He would have agreed entirely with Olyott that, "the Word, on its own, did nothing." The Reformer taught clearly that the Holy Spirit enables us to savingly believe the Word. In his Small Catechism he asks,
Why do you need the Holy Spirit to begin and sustain this faith in you?
By nature I am spiritually blind, dead, and an enemy of God, as the Scriptures teach; therefore, I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.
What has the Holy Spirit done to bring you to faith?
The Holy Spirit "has called me by the Gospel," that is, He has invited and drawn me by the Gospel to partake of the spiritual blessings that are mine in Christ.
When we bear this in mind, Luther wasn't wrong to say, "I did nothing: I left it to the Word", unless we are willing to charge Luke and other biblical writers with a similar error. In a future post I hope to reflect on what Olyott had to say in his article concerning "mediate regeneration" .