by Mike Ratliff
But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:6 ESV)
The incredible lack of spiritual maturity in the current visible church has resulted in a corresponding lack of spiritual depth, i.e. biblical ignorance. Couple this with post-modern relativistic nonsense and we have the perfect environment for the growth and acceptance of what is biblically unChristian being accepted and declared Christian to the point that men like Brian McLaren can be viewed as very advanced and deep “Christian leaders.” As we listen to the blasphemous remarks by this man we must also understand that his “spiritual acumen” did not come from God. There is a precise process God uses to develop His theologians, spokesmen, prophets, and leaders. This process produces a consistent result. Oh, no genuine Christian will claim to be perfect or to “having arrived” spiritually so these “products” of God’s school of spiritual growth will always be “in process.” Martin Luther understood this very well.
Not long ago, I was browsing in a local second-hand bookstore in our area for a diamond in the rough, so-to-speak; a book or collection of books sold to the store from the library of some retired pastor. I have scored some prized books in the past this way that remain in my library to this day and will continue to be used by me until God takes me home. In any case, in the back of the store on the bottom shelf of a stack, which was actually up against the back of another bookcase, I saw a shrink-wrapped slipcase containing four books. It looked new. I moved several books out of the way to get to it. What I found was a set of four books in a collection titled Selected Writings of Martin Luther. The volumes are broken down into four ranges of years. The first volume covers the years 1517-1520. The second volume covers the years 1520-1523. The third volume covers the years 1523-1526, and the fourth volume covers the years 1529-1546. The original price for this set was $60.00. I bought it for $9.99. I am still studying the introductions and prefaces at the beginning of the first volume. In the preface titled “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings” I found a humble, non-presumptuous, man of God who was most concerned that the Church read the Bible, the Word of God, rather than the writings of men, even his own.
Herein I follow the example of St. Augustine, who was, among other things, the first and almost the only one who determined to be subject to the Holy Scriptures alone, and independent of the books of all the fathers and saints. On account of that he got into a fierce fight with St. Jerome, who reproached him by pointing to the books of this forefathers; but he did not turn to them. And if the exmaple of St. Augustine had been followed , the pope would not have become Antichrist, and that countless mass of books, which is like a crawling swarm of vermin, would not have found its way into the church, and the Bible would have remained on the pulpit.
Moreover, I want to point out to you a correct way of studying theology, for I have had practice in that. If you keep to it, you will become so learned that you yourself could (if it were necessary) write books just as good as those of the fathers and councils, even as I (in God) dare to presume and boast, without arrogance and lying, that in the matter of writing books I do not stand much behind some of the fathers. Of my life I can by no means make the same boast. This is the way taught by holy King David (and doubtlessly used also by all the patriarchs and prophets) in the one hundred nineteenth Psalm. There you will find three rules, amply presented throughout the whole Psalm. They are Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio.1
This piqued my interest immediately as I read that. I don’t read Latin so I had to look up these words and also do some other research on the usage of these three words together. Oratio = prayer, Meditatio = meditation, Tentatio= trials. Actually, to Luther, Tentatio would represent the German word anfechtung. Many theologians believe that it is Luther’s concept of anfechtungen that is the basis for or the fertile ground God used to promulgate the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s relentless search for forgiveness and peace with God was the foundation for his eventual theological understanding of Sola Fide. Luther used anfechtungen to describe the overwhelming times of spiritual trial, terror, despair, and religious crisis that he experienced throughout his life. At the heart of this concept of anfechtungen was the terrifying feeling that God was going to judge and condemn the sinner at any moment. We see this same concept in the Puritans such as John Owen, John Bunyan, and Jonathan Edwards. However, as Luther matured in his faith, he came to see his anfechtungen as part of God’s training coupled with prayer and meditation on God’s Word that produced the crucified, humble walk of the man of God on the broken, narrow path, the only way to God Himself.
Firstly, you should know that the Holy Scriptures constitute a book which turns the wisdom of all other books into foolishness, because not one teaches about eternal life except this one alone.Therefore you should straightway despair of your reason and understanding. With them you will not attain eternal life, but, on the contrary, your presumptuousness will plunge you and others with you out of heaven (as happened to Lucifer) into the abyss of hell. But kneel down in your little room [Matt.6:6] and pray to God with real humility and earnestness, that he through his dear Son may give you his Holy Spirit, who will enlighten you, lead you, and give you understanding.
Thus you see how David keeps praying in the above-mentioned Psalm, “Teach me, Lord, instruct me, lead me, show me,” and many more words like these. Although he well knew and daily heard and read the text of Moses and other books besides, still he wants to lay hold of the real teacher of the Scriptures himself, so that he may not seize upon them pell-mell with his reason and become his own teacher. For such practice gives rise to factious spirits who allow themselves to nurture the delusion that the Scriptures are subject to them and can be easily grasped with their reason, as if they were Markolf or Aesop’s Fables, for which no Holy Spirit and no prayers are needed.
Secondly, you should meditate, that is, not only in your heart, but also externally, by actually repeating and comparing oral speech and literal words of the book, reading and rereading them with diligent attention and reflection, so that you may see what the Holy Spirit means by them. And take care that you do not grow weary or think that you have done enough when you have read, heard, and spoken them once or twice, and that you then have complete understanding. You will never be a particularly good theologian if you do that, for you will be like untimely fruit which falls to the ground before it is half ripe.
Thus you see in this same Psalm how David constantly boasts that he will talk, meditate, speak, sing, hear, read, by day and night and always, about nothing except God’s Word and commandments. For God will not give you his Spirit without the external Word; so take your cue from that. His command to write, preach, read, hear, sing, speak, etc., outwardly was not given in vain.
Thirdly, there is tentatio, Anfechtung. This is the touchstone which teaches you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom.
Thus you see how David, in the Psalm mentioned, complains so often about all kinds of enemies, arrogant princes or tyrants, false spirits and factions, whom he must tolerate because he meditates, that is, because he is occupied with God’s Word (as has been said) in all manner of ways. For as soon as God’s Word takes root and grows in you, the devil will harry you, and will make a real doctor of you, and by his assaults will teach you to seek and love God’s Word. I myself (if you will permit me, mere mouse-dirt, to be mingled with pepper) am deeply indebted to my papists that through the devil’s raging they have beaten, oppressed, and distressed me so much. That is to say, they have made a fairly good theologian of me, which I would not have become otherwise. And I heartily grant them what they have won in return for making this of me, honor, victory, and triumph, for that’s the way they wanted it.
There now, with that you have David’s rules. If you study hard in accord with his example, then you will also sing and boast with him in the Psalm, “The law of thy mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces” [Ps. 119:72]. Also, “Thy commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, for I keep thy precepts,” etc. [Ps. 119:98–100]. And it will be your experience that the books of the fathers will taste stale and putrid to you in comparison. You will not only despise the books written by adversaries, but the longer you write and teach the less you will be pleased with yourself. When you have reached this point, then do not be afraid to hope that you have begun to become a real theologian, who can teach not only the young and imperfect Christians, but also the maturing and perfect ones. For indeed, Christ’s church has all kinds of Christians in it who are young, old, weak, sick, healthy, strong, energetic, lazy, simple, wise, etc.
If, however, you feel and are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books, teaching, or writing, because you have done it beautifully and preached excellently; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others; if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it—if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do this in the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears. Then do not spare any expense! Decorate them with golden bells, so that people will be able to hear you wherever you go, point their fingers at you, and say, “See, See! There goes that clever beast, who can write such exquisite books and preach so remarkably well.” That very moment you will be blessed and blessed beyond measure in the kingdom of heaven. Yes, in that heaven where hellfire is ready for the devil and his angels. To sum up: Let us be proud and seek honor in the places where we can. But in this book the honor is God’s alone, as it is said, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” [1 Pet. 5:5]; to whom be glory, world without end, Amen.2
My brethren, I agree with Luther in this and we see this same wisdom from John Calvin here. We whom God has given a voice in the Church should do nothing more than point all who will hear to the Word of God, the Cross, Christ, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit. We teach all who hear, to pray, meditate on God’s Truth, and through the trials God allows in our lives, learn to be humble, broken, and usable vessels that God uses to accomplish His will. Anything else is useless garbage. To those drawn to the light by God to learn His truth and walk it, it is good to read men such as Calvin, Luther, Owen, Bunyan, Edwards, MacArthur, Sproul, et cetera, because these men point us to God’s Word. They are grounded in Sola Scriptura and use the exposition of God’s Word to expound His Truth rather than the man-made, man-pleasing mouse dirt using eisegesis to add to God’s Word or deny it in order to promulgate their philosophies.
Soli Deo Gloria!
1Martin Luther, from Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings 1539, Selected Writings of Martin Luther 1517-1520, (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, p. 9.)
2Ibid, pp. 9-12.