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Great Truths, Great Division

Editors’ Note: One necessary condition for doing moral apologetics as Christians is having a clear understanding of the requirements of Christian morality. We are thankful for Dr. Thomas’ piece clarifying for Christians the importance of the objectivity and authority of the biblical teaching on sexual ethics. The recognition of these features of Christian morality are critical both for apologetics and the life of the church, at least as critical as the issues that divided the Christian church in the the time of Martin Luther, as Thomas reminds us in this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation. 

By H. O. ‘Tom’ Thomas

Some call it ‘The Great Schism’.  At issue are articulus stantis et (vel) cadentis ecclesiae (articles, biblical truths, ‘by which the church stands or falls’).    Are there such biblical truths for which you will risk everything, even schism of the church, even your life?  I have been reconsidering the Protestant Reformation on its 500th anniversary.  On October 31, 1517, Halloween, an unknown monk-pastor-professor Martin Luther posted ninety- five points, ‘The Ninety- Five Theses’, for university debate.  It set off a chain reaction of church reform and renewal resulting in the Roman Catholic Church split.  Some refer to it as ‘The Great Schism’.

Namely, by 1532 Europe was divided in two:  territories and churches which were Protestant; and territories and churches who were Roman Catholic.  Both sides were readied for armed warfare.   They stood down when the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 allowed each other to exist as Protestant churches and Roman Catholic churches.

‘The Great Schism’ began with a presenting issue: the sale of ‘indulgences’.  The presenting issue was serious enough in itself.  However, it would not be called an ‘articulus stantis et (vel) cadentis ecclessia’.  Over this alone the Church might not have split.  Nonetheless, lurking underneath and supporting the practice of selling indulgences were biblical truths upon which the Christian faith stands or falls.  These truths constitute Christianity.  They could not be compromised!  They could not be conceded short of subverting salvation itself.

As I have reflected on the Reformation, fascinating parallels with our own Church situation light up.   Acceptance of the practice of homosexuality is the presenting issue today.  It’s a serious issue in and of itself.  However, some on both sides argue it’s not an article over which to split the church.  I submit to you underneath, supporting, and entangled in the argument for allowing the practice of homosexuality are matters involving deep, biblical truths, ‘essentials’, as John Wesley called them, upon which the very essence of the Christian faith depends.  Under no circumstances can they be compromised!  If they are, the foundation of Christian experience falls.  I ask myself, I ask you:  Are great truths worth a ‘great schism’!

The presenting issue arousing Martin Luther’s ire was the church’s sale of ‘indulgences’.  An ‘indulgence’ was a paper certificate church officials offered parishioners for a fee that granted forgiveness of their sin.  Usually after committing a sin a parishioner confessed and did acts of ‘good works’ (penance).  These acts merited good credit and paid the penalty for their sin. The good works restored them to favor with God.  Buying an ‘indulgence’ itself was considered a good work and qualified as penance which restored one to favor with God.  The money from the indulgences went to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

‘Indulgences’ were the manifesting issue for Martin Luther.  Just the same, the extending roots under the surface were the most foundational biblical truths. They were at the root of biblical Christianity.  What is the nature of repentance? How does one gain acceptance with God?  How can I be forgiven my sin?   What is required of a guilty sinner to be justified by a holy and just God?  What is the nature of heart religion and holy living? What is the Word of God? By whose authority am I forgiven?  The Church? The Pope?  Or Jesus Christ alone?

The acceptance of homosexual practice with marriage and ordination has been the presenting issue in mainline churches.  This alone is serious enough.  Bound up inextricably with it lurking deeper underneath are the most profound biblical and theological essentials.  I can only briefly touch on three/four of the most fundamental.

(1) As it was with indulgences, the question of how can I be acceptable to God is primary.  Martin Luther and classic Protestants answered this as the apostle Paul did:  ‘He justifies the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3: 26); ‘we are justified by faith’ (Romans 5:1); ‘for by grace you have been saved through faith’ (Ephesians 2: 8).  One repents of one’s sin with a sorrowful conviction for snubbing God and turns away from the sin. One receives by faith, with a confidence in the heart, Jesus the Son of God who by his atoning death pardons the guilt and sin.  One is then declared acceptable and righteous before God.

You do not see mainline centrists and progressives making room for a definitive moment of salvation where a guilty sinner crosses from a state of sin and death into a state of saving grace.  You will not hear them call persons to repent of their state of revolt from God; you will not hear them call persons to receive saving faith which will make them acceptable and righteous before God; and you will not hear them proclaiming the God-Man Jesus Christ by which faith in His saving blood alone merits our acceptance with God.

No, ‘centrists’ and progressives assume ‘universalism’.  “Universalism’ is the belief all persons are elected to salvation.  ‘Centrists’ and progressives use Scriptural verses like Hebrews 2: 9 to say Jesus ‘tasted death for everyone.’ In every religious speech for homosexuality advocates say God’s grace extends to all persons.  All are included.  No one is excluded.  Magisterial twentieth century theologian Karl Barth argued saving grace applies to everyone.  He declared through the Son the whole of creation is elected to salvation.  Everyone is elected. Election is not to shut but to open; not to exclude but to include; not to say ‘no’ but to say ‘yes’.   Like indulgences to Martin Luther, homosexuality is to the mainline church today.  The offshoot takes us to the root.  We are not at the periphery.  We are at the heart.  Without this, there is no Christianity!

(2)  The presenting issue of the acceptance of homosexual practice is inextricably bound up with another essential biblical truth:  the sufficiency of Holy Scripture alone for eternal salvation.  What is the supreme authority for the way to eternal salvation?  Everything necessary for your and my eternal salvation is in Holy Scripture.   The Roman Catholic Church held two authorities:  Holy Scripture and the Catholic Councils’ decision over the centuries.  These great ecumenical Councils’ teaching was deemed as authoritative as Holy Scripture.

The watchword for Martin Luther and the Protestants was sola Scriptura, ‘Scripture alone’.  Mainline centrists and progressives say they believe the authority of Scripture.  Do they believe Holy Scripture is supreme above all authorities? For them, something outside and in addition to Scripture comes into play.  They say Scripture is to be submitted to the judgment of ‘the sum total of human experience.’ Scripture is one authority among other authorities of human experience, emotivist sentiment, and scientific consensus.  That means, the Word of God is subjected to an authority higher than itself:  human beings.  On the contrary, we declare ‘the sum of human experience’ must be submitted to the criterion of Holy Scripture.  We reaffirm the slogan of the Reformation, ‘sola Scriptura’, ‘Scripture alone’!

(3) The acceptance of homosexual practice is also bound up inextricably with another foundational issue:  does biblical teaching refer to objective realities which exist outside of human thought and experience? In contrast, is biblical teaching relative and dependent on the subjective person who creates it out of his or her mind and experience?  This latter view of relativism is the assumption of those in the mainline calling themselves ‘centrist’ and progressive.  On the surface, ‘centrists’ argue in God’s church both views (a) homosexuality is blessed by God and (b) homosexuality is forbidden by God belong together in Christ’s church.  They assume a God who wills two mutually exclusive things: (a) God wills homosexuality is a pleasing practice in His church (b) God condemns homosexual practice as having no place in His church.  The same act is both good and evil.  This makes God arbitrary and irrational like the pagan god Zeus.

We Scriptural Christians say homosexuality is sinful.  God can do no other than will against it because it is intrinsically contrary to God’s objective nature of goodness and love.  God wills what He wills because it agrees with His character and the objective nature of His created order.  Present underneath the ‘centrist’ and progressive claim is moral relativism.  Moral relativism says ‘no one moral claim is true for everybody’.  Morality is different for different people, in different times, and in different places.

This is wrongheaded.  This view is in total opposition to Scriptural Christianity.  If conceded, the demise of Christian salvation follows.  ‘Absolutists’, those who accept morality is true always, everywhere ,and at all times, believe the ‘centrists’ view is false.  ‘Centrists’ believe their view to be true.  By their own view, ‘centrists’ have to believe our view to be true which says God condemns homosexual practice always, in every place, and for all people.   The wrinkle is, by their own view, therefore, ‘centrists’ must believe their own view to be false.  If ‘centrists’ are true to their relativist view, they must accept the rejection of their own view.  They have to allow that our view is right which says their view is wrong!  In making their case for relativism, they undermine and refute their own assumption.  They have to allow our view is true which says God wills only one thing:  homosexual practice is sin and wrong.

Can we be united with ‘centrists’ and progressives in Christ’s Church?  Only if we concede conceptual and moral relativism; only if we allow Holy Scripture must be subjected to a higher authority; only if we give up ‘justification by grace through faith’; and, only if, we are ready to forfeit Christianity.  Are great truths worth a ‘great schism’?

 

Image: By Anton von Werner – https://www.staatsgalerie.de/en/g/collection/digital-collection/einzelansicht/sgs/werk/einzelansicht/0B0D3C944C3810077954978B36F59919.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62481320

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