The Gospel Coalition and Dispensationalism

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Last month Ryan Kelly and Kevin DeYoung posted an essay on The Gospel Coalition (TGC) blog (that originally appeared in the spring 2014 issue of Affinity) defending the existence of interdenominational or extra-ecclesial partnerships. Though the essay addresses a few different examples of these kinds of partnerships, the main focus is on TGC. After a quick historical look (that, oddly, focuses primarily on state-sponsored efforts) they briefly discuss Together for the Gospel before providing a quick synopsis of TGC and then attempt to answer several criticisms that have been leveled against TGC. Whether or not they are successful at understanding and answering these criticisms is not under consideration here. Instead, I’d like to consider an interesting statement about TGC and Dispensationalists.

In the midst of defending TGC against the charge of being either too narrow and exclusive or too broad or ambiguous in its doctrinal stance, they discuss the nature of TGC’s Founding Documents:

“TGC circumscribes certain doctrinal positions and not others, because some are central to the preaching of the gospel (for example, penal substitution, the uniqueness of Christ, eternality of hell); some differences evince deep hermeneutical differences, and are practically necessary for something like a preaching conference (complementarianism); and some so affect our understanding of God’s glory and grace that they must be made explicit (Reformed soteriology)….TGC’s Confessional Statement falls within the broader Reformed tradition, and, as noted earlier, it is particular regarding monergistic soteriology, complementarianism, inerrancy, a historical Adam, and double imputation in justification; yet it is unspecific as to eschatology, church polity, sacraments, miraculous gifts, and the like. The Foundational Documents could not be fully embraced by hard-line dispensationalists, Lutherans, emergents, or mainline liberals. However, among the council there are Presbyterian, Reformed, Episcopalian/Anglican, Baptist, Free Church, and nondenominational, all of which must agree with what is contained in the Foundation Documents. At a little more than 2,300 words, the confessional statement is not aiming for the kind of doctrinal specificity found in the Westminster Confession of Faith or The Second Helvetic Confession. The points of doctrinal specificity in TGC’s documents are intentional, as are the areas of silence.”

Though I’m not certain what they mean by “hard-line dispensationalists,” I find the listing of four categories of “Christians” who could not fully embrace the Foundational Documents interesting: “hard-line dispensationalists, Lutherans, emergents, or mainline liberals.” The latter two would not be able to embrace the documents because they do not affirm things like inerrancy, penal substitution, the uniqueness of Christ, etc. In other words, they could not be part of TGC because they effectively deny the gospel. I’m not certain why Lutherans would be excluded (perhaps this is a reference to the controversy of the Lutheran view of sanctification espoused by former TGC blogger Tullian Tchividjian), but it seems odd that they and “hard-line dispensationalists” would be excluded along with those who have practically rejected the gospel.

So why would “hard-line dispensationalists” be excluded? Dispensationalism has no distinct teaching on areas related to “monergistic soteriology, complementarianism, inerrancy, a historical Adam, and double imputation in justification.” Many Dispensationalists—from a variety of flavors of Dispensationalism—would affirm all of those things. Where Dispensationalism offers a unique understanding in theology centers first of all in ecclesiology (e.g., what is the church, when did it start, what is its relationship to Israel) and secondarily in eschatology (e.g., when will the rapture occur, what is the nature of the kingdom, etc.) Those two areas seem to be matters where these authors claim TGC has remained silent: “[TGC’s confession] is unspecific as to eschatology, church polity, sacraments, miraculous gifts, and the like.”

Why are “hard-line dispensationalists” excluded then? My guess is that, despite Kelly and DeYoung’s claims, TGC has taken a stand on eschatology. As Kevin Bauder has noted, most traditional dispensationalists (perhaps this is what is meant by “hard-line”) do not believe that the kingdom has been inaugurated, while TGC’s Founding Documents explicitly claim that it has.

My question: why include a specific statement on the kingdom of God in the confessional statement but not specific statements on things like “church polity, sacraments, miraculous gifts, and the like”? Where does an inaugurated form of the kingdom fit in their explanation for what doctrinal specifics are included? Is it “central to the preaching of the gospel”? Is it a difference that “evince[s] deep hermeneutical differences, and [is] practically necessary for something like a preaching conference (complementarianism)”? Does it “so affect our understanding of God’s glory and grace that [it] must be made explicit”? I don’t see how it fits in any of those areas. So why include a statement in a confession designed to unite believers around the gospel that excludes a large number of believers who fully embrace the gospel?

Posted in Theology | Tagged | 9 Comments

Winner Announcement

We are pleased to announce that Josh Peglow of Silverdale, WA is the winner of our recent book giveaway. The books will go in the mail today. Thanks to all who entered.

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Notes Toward a Theology of Pets and the Atonement (Spoof)

Angry catLast week, Pope Francis made headlines by announcing in his weekly address that we will be able to see our pets in heaven. Specifically, he pontificated, “Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.” Since this statement is sure to set the theological world abuzz, I thought I would use this week’s blog post to help delineate some key theological implications of this statement:

(1)  Since Paradise is only “open to” all of God’s creatures, it is clear that the Pope is not advocating Pet Universalism, but something on the order of Hypothetical Pet Universalism or possibly Pet Amyraldism. It seems unlikely, however, based on the Pope’s track record, that he affirms the dread doctrine of Limited Pet Atonement.

(2)  As such, we must conclude that some pets do not meet the criteria for regeneration. Based on other Roman Catholic materials, it seems fairly clear that baptism is a critical piece of the puzzle. I am convinced that it is theologically necessary to conclude that while most dogs will go to heaven, cats universally go to Purgatory and thence to hell. This is because all cats refuse to submit to baptism—especially baptism by immersion. In my former life as a catvangelist, I found this to be consistently true.

(3)  The foregoing suggests that cats have been “given over” to a reprobate mind (Rom 1:24). Paul’s words later in the chapter are particularly instructive: while dogs do sin, they always look guilty afterward and seek forgiveness. Cats, on the other hand, “knowing that those who do unrighteous deeds deserve death, not only continue to do these very things, but also approve of those who practice them.” Cats definitively prove the doctrine of total depravity.

Dog prayingI could go on, but I thought the blogosphere would be the perfect place to collect additional materials toward a theology of pets. When you’re all done, I will collect all of your responses and forward them to the Vatican.

Nothing serious, please—any responses that are not at least a little bit funny will be snagged and summarily deleted by our blog enforcer.

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Book Giveaway

In the spirit of the season, we’ll be giving away a couple of books to one of our readers very soon. Here are the books:

Christians in an Age of Wealth by Craig Blomberg

Workbook in Romans by Kenneth Berding

If you’d like to be entered in the drawing, just leave a comment below mentioning one book you’ve read this year. The entry period will end at 5 pm EST, Tuesday, December 16, 2014. We’re planning to announce the winner sometime on Wednesday.

Posted in Book Review, Miscellaneous | Tagged | 31 Comments

On Fools and Folly

In the latest issue of the Michigan Daily, the campus newspaper of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Claire Bryan runs an intriguing article, “Born to Believe?” The basic thrust of the article is that part of the human tendency toward “being religious” stems from the presence of a particular gene in our DNA sequence, viz., VMAT2. Those who have this gene have an elevated sense of “self-transcendence,” or “the interest people have in searching for something greater in this world, beyond their own personal experience,” usually reflected in a “desire for things like compassion, art, creativity, expression, spirituality.”

The author does not deny the influence of cultural background in individual expressions of religion, but affirms that “accepting this environmentally molded spirituality that is taught to you may be affected by the way you were born and the genes you have.” She concludes, “‘Being religious’ may not be in my control entirely. It may be the biological science of my body and beyond some of my own means.”

Of course the person who wrote this little article is theologically challenged (retarded is the word that came immediately to mind, but that word is not political expedient any more). All people, being endowed by their Creator with the imago dei, are born with lively and true religious impulses that we suppress or exchange for lies due to sin (Rom 1:18ff). So Ms. Bryan is flat-out wrong in her assessment.

But what I found particularly intriguing in this article is how it surfaces the great tension of the Aristotelian worldview held by many in the university community. For these, nothing is attributed to chance, much less to God, because everything about me is the product of biological, physical, chemical, and genetic patterns in combination. In such a system, no one can be culpable for who he is, because he can’t help it! And so we must allow left-handed people to be left-handed, allow vegans to be vegans, and allow homosexuals to be homosexuals. To suggest that any of these recessive traits should be “corrected” is the height of arrogance and intolerance: a denial of the liberty of authenticity. “People must be allowed to be themselves,” is the mantra of our day.

But no one can live with the implications of such a worldview. It might work on a limited scale, but surely not on a universal one. We don’t, for instance, appeal to genetic predispositions in allowing murderers to kill, pedophiles to abuse, or kleptomaniacs to steal; instead, we build correctional facilities to remediate such people. Nor do we shrug our shoulders upon meeting alcoholics, chain smokers, and compulsive gamblers and say, “Oh well, it can’t be helped. That’s just the way they are!” Instead, we offer means of correcting destructive behaviors and changing the way people are. And, ironically, it is unlikely that this university newspaper, which has ostensibly discovered that religious people can’t help being religious, will dissuade its own professors from attempting to “correct” the religion of their religious students or even attempting to disabuse them of their religious proclivities entirely.

No worldview save the Christian worldview is demonstrably free of such inconsistencies. And so let us promote it enthusiastically.

Posted in Apologetics | Tagged | 2 Comments

A Pattern for Preaching that Meets People’s Needs

I heard recently of a church seeking a new pastor. Some said, “We want a pastor whose preaching is practical and encouraging.” Others said, “We need a doctrinal, expositional ministry.” Still others prefer preaching heavy on confrontation. It is easy to identify what some people want in the preaching they hear (sometimes they will tell you!), but what, exactly, do they need? Pastors, we should strive as preachers to provide preaching that truly meets peoples needs.

Now, I am not talking about felt needs, as in the “give them what they feel they need and they will come,” seeker-driven church model. Neither am I talking about the need of the moment preaching that identifies cultural trends and is constantly addressing the latest headline. Nor, just what we think they need, based on our perceptions or personalities. I am talking about seeing the needs God has designed the Scripture to meet and then providing preaching that, in a balanced way, reflects that design. God has given us a simple pattern to follow in Scripture’s stated purpose that can guide us in providing preaching that meets people’s needs.

2 Timothy 3:16-17, a very familiar passage, says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (NASB). The Bible is God’s revealed means for the growth of lives into maturity, and preaching this Word, according to the purposes for which it has been given, will produce mature people. We know that in all of Scripture we find passages that are particularly good for teaching doctrine, or for correcting wrong thinking or behaving, or encouraging practical growth in sanctification. However, sometimes we fail to realize as well that in every part of Scripture, there is truth to be taught, reproof to be given, correction to be made, and practical training to be provided.

When you approach your study of the Word for preaching, ask yourself questions about the text that reflect these purposes, and then preach them all in the sermon. This will help provide a well-balanced preaching and teaching ministry that meets the needs of the people God has given you to shepherd. It will also help us avoid the tendency to over-emphasize certain types of preaching based on our personalities and our or others’ preferences.

This may seem too simple and too obvious to qualify as a “homiletical model.” Maybe so, but are you willing to try it? Here are some steps for application. First, review your notes before preaching and mark the categories in the margins or headings of your notes. Understand the text drives the sermon, so some texts will be more heavily weighted in one area or the other. Each text will have its “big idea,” but all of the people’s needs can be met from each text as well. Second, ask several trusted members (including your wife and children) to take notes on your sermons for a month—specifically looking for the four general purposes—teaching (truth to be believed), reproof (confrontation of wrong belief or behavior), correction (truth that specifically corrects what is reproved and edifies), and instruction in righteousness (practical application in righteous living). See how balanced your preaching is between these categories in the minds of your hearers, and be willing to make adjustments. Finally, talk to people about your sermons. Ask them what they learned and how they think that should make a difference in their lives.

God has told us what people need, so let’s provide preaching that meets people’s needs!

Posted in Exposition, Homiletics, Preaching | Leave a comment

Keeping Thanksgiving Well

card_270_Thanksgiving_1605-111110-A-final-front-weWhen one thinks of the primary sins in our world today, we tend to think big, pointing to sins like murder, abuse, sexual sins, and possibly blasphemy or idolatry. Very few of us, I think, would leap up to suggest that the sin of ingratitude should supplant these vices as more primary.

The Apostle Paul, however, is deeply concerned about the sin of ingratitude. Not only does it earn a spot on one of Paul’s famous “sin lists” (2 Tim 3:2), but it also stands in Romans 1:21 as the capital crime in the downward spiral of depravity that has marked the human condition from its inception: “They did not give thanks to him.”

We should not be surprised by this. Since the greatest commandment is to love God supremely (Matt 22:37–38), then the foremost sin is failing to observe the great commandment and preferring instead gods of our own choosing (so Rom 1:21ff). Before man can construct alternative gods and alternative ethical systems, he must first deconstruct the God that is unavoidably plain to him; before the floodgates of vice can open, Paul says, one must first be guilty of the more primary sin of ingratitude. It is for this reason that ingratitude takes its ignoble place in Scripture as the dark vestibule not only to idolatry but to all that is evil.

And so it is eminently appropriate that we set aside a day for thanksgiving each November. It is a day set aside to curb vice by fulfilling the first and greatest commandment. Ebenezer Scrooge may have learned how to “keep Christmas well” (whatever Dickens may have meant by that), but perhaps the more primary virtue is learning to keep Thanksgiving well.

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If Churches Work for Artistic Excellence, Do They Risk Enlisting the Unregenerate in Worship?

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Churches that are concerned for artistic excellence in worship will often employ unregenerate musicians to “lead in worship.” Though these individuals do not know God, as skilled musicians they are able to offer fine presentations in the worship service. Is this a biblical practice? If churches are concerned about offering fine presentations in their worship service, will they be forced to enlist unregenerate people to lead in worship? The answer to this question can be a resounding “no.” But if we are to offer that “no,” we must understand what we mean by “artistic excellence” and what we mean by “leading worship.”

Worship cannot be offered by those who do not know God through Jesus Christ. Thus, it would be impossible to have an unregenerate person leading in worship, since leading would include participating in worship—something an unregenerate person cannot do. Thus, the issue would be whether or not a church’s emphasis on “artistic excellence” would risk enlisting the unregenerate to utilize their skill in facilitating the worship of the regenerate.

This is where 1 Corinthians 12 provides an important reminder. Paul points out that God has carefully designed the body so that each member is integral for the health of the body. No member can claim that they do not need the body nor that the body does not need them. In fact, God has given spiritual gifts to the church in order to edify the body, to unify the body, and to manifest the reality of God’s presence in the world.

These three purposes help shed some light on the differences between a natural ability and a spiritual gift and on when someone gets his/her spiritual gifts. A spiritual gift is different from a natural ability because it displays the Spirit, but also because it is designed for the edification of the Church. There is a difference between a person who utilizes teaching in a business or school and someone who utilizes it in the church. The first is a “natural” ability (still given by God), while the second would be a spiritual gift.

Since a spiritual gift is a manifestation of the Spirit, it cannot simply be something someone had prior to salvation. Spiritual gifts are either bestowed at or energized at conversion—when one receives the Spirit. It may be that a natural ability, which is still a gift from God but not a spiritual gift, is energized by the Spirit at conversion for the good of the church. For example, a person may have been a compassionate person before he/she was saved, but at salvation the Holy Spirit takes that compassion and energizes it to minister to others in the church. It may also be that at conversion or sometime thereafter a new gift is given to a person since verses 7 and 11 state that the Spirit gives them as He wills. Thus it is possible that He could choose to add or subtract spiritual gifts when He thinks it will better manifest Himself and edify and unify the church.

I’m inclined to think artistic ability could be a spiritual gift (since there is no definitive list of gifts in the New Testament). But that would mean that either a person gains artistic ability at conversion or, more likely, that artistic ability is now energized for the good of the church. An unregenerate person would not possess that spiritual gift and would not, then, be able to edify and unify the church in its worship. So a church should not enlist the unregenerate in the hopes of accomplishing what only the regenerate can do.

What should a church do if it does not have people with artistic ability to lead in worship? Again, Paul points out that God is in charge of distributing the gifts (v. 11). God has ensured that each church has within itself what it needs to glorify God at that time, which is why it would be best to think of “artistic excellence” along these lines—doing the best with the resources (talent, time, money) that you have. Thus, what artistic excellence means will be different for each church, but each church should be striving for it with the resources God has given.

Posted in Practical Theology, Worship | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Why Pray If God Knows Everything?

In his commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, John Calvin discusses Jesus’ statement that the “Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt 6:8). Calvin addresses the question of why believers should pray if God already knows what we need. He suggests the following as at least a partial answer:

Believers do not pray, with the view of informing God about things unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as though he were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray, in order that they may arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on his promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into his bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from Him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things (Calvin, commentary on Matt 6:8).

When praying, believers never tell God something he doesn’t already know. But God has chosen to use prayer as a means by which God’s people express their dependence upon their Father who knows all things and can actually do something about the most puzzling problems of life.

Posted in Church History, Historical Theology, Practical Theology | Tagged | 1 Comment

A Promise of Land & Seed AND/OR Inheritance & People?

Students sometimes ask me the difference between the hermeneutics employed by Covenant, New Covenant, Progressive Dispensational, and Traditional Dispensational theologian/exegetes. Perhaps the easiest way to answer is to offer an example of one of the most heavily disputed topics of Scripture, viz., the Abrahamic Covenant. After detailing four basic approaches to these covenant promises, I will offer three key informing OT texts, each selected and highlighted, but otherwise not annotated, to emphasize the reasons why I hold to the last hermeneutical approach:

THE OPTIONS

A supersessionist hermeneutic says that the land promise to Abraham’s natural seed is a recapitulation of the Covenant of Grace that will be fulfilled when a group of people who are not Abraham’s natural seed receive something other than the land promised.

A typological hermeneutic says that the land promise to Abraham’s natural seed is a genuine but temporary historical reality that falls away in disinterest after God discloses a new, culminating, and much greater inheritance (a new heaven and new earth) for the greater, spiritual seed of Abraham.

A complementary hermeneutic says that the land promise to Abraham’s natural seed will be fulfilled exactly as promised to ethnic Israelites in the Millennium/Eternal State, but that a share of this reward will also accrue to Abraham’s spiritual seed, who become new and equal partners of an expanded Abrahamic promise.

A literal hermeneutic says that the land promise to Abraham’s natural seed will be fulfilled exactly as promised to ethnic Israelites in the Millennium/Eternal State, and that all the peoples of the earth are afforded substantial subsidiary blessings through the obedience of faith.

THE TEXTS

Genesis 12:1–3: The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

Genesis 13:15–17: The LORD said to Abram, “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

Genesis 15:2–6: Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Obviously much more can be said, but it’s a blog post, not a book. I trust that this can serve as a faithful summary and preliminary defense.

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2 Cor 5:7 — A Sometimes Misused Text

Most of us are familiar with how 2 Cor 5:7 reads in the KJV, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” If you do a Google search on this verse, you will find explanations of what this means, such as, “the Bible challenges us to ‘walk by faith, not by sight,’” or you are to “walk by faith, not by sight,’” or you ought to “walk by faith, not by sight.’” You have probably heard the same kind of thing in sermons. Just to clarify, the word walk in this verse is, of course, used in the metaphorical sense of “live”; so the NIV, “For we live by faith, not by sight.” Thus, Paul’s words are taken to be an exhortation or command to “live by faith.” According to this view, we are challenged to rise above our normal Christian experience, and rather than operating from a worldly perspective (“living by sight”), we should conduct our lives and make our decisions based upon our faith and trust in the God and his Word. There is nothing wrong with this idea in and of itself. It is theologically accurate to say and to insist that the Christian must always seek to live by faith and trust in God and his promises, and not be motivated by only what he or she can see and hear in their present circumstances.

The problem is: this is not what the text says, nor what it means. Paul is not commanding the Corinthians to “live by faith”; he is making a statement: the Corinthians are living by faith.

Our text is also popular in the Word of Faith movement, which I won’t take time to describe at this point. Another popular TV preacher in that movement, Frederick Price, closes every sermon by citing 2 Cor 5:7.

But in all these instances, this text has been stripped of its context and a new meaning assigned to it. Paul is not saying that we “should live by faith” or that we “ought to live by faith.” No, he directly and unequivocally says that we, all believers, do, in fact, live by faith. But why does Paul make this statement?

Verse 7 is rightly understood to be a parenthesis in the thought of vv. 6-8.

(6) Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. (7) For we live by faith, not by sight. (8) We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

Let us go back for a moment to the beginning of chapter 5 in order to get the broader context. Paul begins in v. 1 by explaining what happens to a believer who dies, “if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed.” Fortunately, Paul says, we can look forward to a resurrection body, “a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” But until then “we groan” (v. 2), knowing that our present bodies are subject to ailments, injury, and disability. And since we know that “as long as we are at home in the body we are away [in a spatial sense] from the Lord” (v. 6), we “would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (v. 8). All believers here on earth are presently “away from the Lord” in the sense Paul means in v. 6.

But Paul’s reasoning in vv. 6 and 8 could leave the wrong impression. That’s why he interrupts v. 6 with 7 before he completes his thought in v. 8. The “for” that begins v. 7 is what the standard Greek dictionary (BDAG) calls a “marker of clarification.” One could easily take Paul’s statement in v. 6 to mean that since believers are presently “away from the Lord,” they enjoy no fellowship with him at all. But, of course, that is absolutely false, for, you see, Paul says (v. 7), “we presently live in the realm of faith ["by faith"], not in the realm of sight.” Paul is contrasting actually seeing the Lord (“at home with the Lord”) with our present experience of believing in the Lord without seeing him (“away from the Lord”). For now believers “live in the realm of faith,” trusting in the Lord whom they have not seen, but one day they will “live in the realm of sight.” This is same sort of contrast we see in John 20:29 and 1 Pet 1:8.

So although we are presently “away from the Lord,” this does not mean that we are cutoff from fellowship with the Lord. But for now we live “in the realm of faith,” which is no hindrance to communion with our Savior, though truly we look forward to the day when we will live “by sight.” Then, as the hymn writer puts it, our “faith shall be sight.”

[This entry was originally posted on Feb 1, 2012]

Posted in Exposition | 1 Comment

Reformation Day Treats

In honor of Reformation Day, here are a few resources you might want to check out. Ligonier Ministries has made a number of Reformation-related e-books and audio/video resources available to download for free (until 11:59 pm, Oct 31, 2014).

Over on Amazon, several books by Martin Luther are currently free in electronic format.

Works of Martin Luther, vol. 1 (contains his 95 Theses)

Selections from Luther’s Table Talk

Bondage of the Will (abridged ed.)

Luther’s Small Catechism

In addition to these, a number of Luther’s other writings can be found online here, here, and here.

Posted in Church History, Historical Theology | 1 Comment