O Wretched Man that I Am!

March 15, 2019 | by James M. Harrison

O Wretched Man that I Am!

“Life is as evil among us as among the papists, thus we do not argue about life, but about doctrine. Whereas Wyclif and Hus attacked the immoral lifestyle of the papacy, I challenge primarily the doctrine.” Martin Luther, Table Talk, Autumn 1553

I write as an Evangelical. More specifically, I write as a reformed Evangelical. I do not believe that the Reformation was a matter of semantics. I do believe that there were good and sound reasons for the great 16th century upheaval. Furthermore, I believe that the issues which brought about this division have not been reconciled, but remain today, as then, barriers to genuine unity. I believe that any Protestant who does not believe such, and yet remains separated from Rome, is a schismatic, and should make a beeline back to the Vatican.

Now for something seemingly unrelated, but not really.

I still read actual books. That is, although I make use of e-books, I continue to read books made of paper, as well. I realize there are those who do so for sensual purposes. They revel in the feel of the pages, and the aroma of ancient dust. I read paper books for two more practical reasons. First, there are some books that are not yet available in electronic form, and second, I’m a note taker, and there are some books which call out for the preservation of written notes. In any case, when reading an actual book made of paper, I require a bookmark.

I could, of course, simply tear off a portion of a scrap paper, and place that between the pages of my book, but I require a bookmark that is more than utilitarian. I therefore created my own bookmarks, containing various quotes that made an impression upon me for some reason, and then passing them on to my assistant for proper design and lamination.

“I beg of you, my dear brother, to live among the Scriptures, to meditate upon them, to know nothing else, to seek nothing else.” – Jerome

“Pray and read, read and pray; for a little from God is better than a great deal from men.” – John Bunyan

And then there is this, which I happened to be using as I read Heiko A. Oberman’s, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil:

“Use this when you read a line that is so well-written, you just close the book and stare at the wall for a minute.”

I find that I sometimes close my book and stare at the wall for a minute, not because a line is so well-written, but because an author has written something which, for one reason or another, confronts me with a thought which makes it impossible to simply read on.

In this case, this quote from Luther’s Table Talk elicited such a reaction. It was not the profundity of the thought which stopped me, but rather the timing, for just days before, the Houston Chronicle had published an expose’ revealing an alleged 20-year long sex scandal within the leadership of several Southern Baptist churches.

As this new information was being revealed, scandals from the past were raised once again. Sovereign Grace Ministries, a Charismatic-Reformed quasi denomination begun by Young, Restless, and Reformed superstar C.J. Mahaney, had been in the eye of a hurricane since the early 2010’s. Accusations of sexual abuse, and a cover-up orchestrated by Mahaney and other leaders within SGM, threatened to tear down the entire edifice.

Everyone is well aware of the scandals within the Roman Catholic Church. Now, with the Houston Chronicle expose’, the spotlight was turned upon the same abuse and cover-up within Evangelicalism. Those who had issued statements of support for C.J. Mahaney, most notably Albert Mohler, the President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and cultural commentator, now recanted and apologized not only for their support of Mahaney, but also for the ways in which that support did damage to the victims of abuse.

It was then that I read this quote from Martin Luther’s Table Talk:

“Life is as evil among us as among the papists, thus we do not argue about life, but about doctrine. Whereas Wyclif and Hus attacked the immoral lifestyle of the papacy, I challenge primarily the doctrine.”

Recently, at the 2019 Shepherd’s Conference hosted by John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church, controversy arose upon controversy. Phil Johnson, moderating a Q&A panel consisting of, among others, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, and Al Mohler, pressed the question of Social Justice upon the participants. All who were present, or watching the livestream or video agreed…it was a most uncomfortable conversation, as, by the judgment of most, Johnson pressed, and Dever, Duncan, and Mohler, defended and evaded.

I bring this up only because of what had happened not too long past, when Al Mohler and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary released a report which Mohler had commissioned a year before, concerning the history of racism in regard to the seminary and its leaders. The report didn’t reveal anything new, really. The founders of Southern Seminary were slave owners. The founders, and those who came after, defended slavery and, for many years after, the confederate cause. They were also, in most other respects, brilliant, godly men who loved Christ, His church, and left a legacy of sound theological scholarship.

And Martin Luther said,

“Life is as evil among us as among the papists, thus we do not argue about life, but about doctrine. Whereas Wyclif and Hus attacked the immoral lifestyle of the papacy, I challenge primarily the doctrine.”

And the words of Jeremiah 17:9 ring in the ears of my mind:

“The heart is more deceitful than all else, and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?”

Indeed. Who can understand it? Who can understand the co-habitation of truth and wickedness? Who can understand how one can know the truth, and love Christ, and yet, at the same time, think, speak, and act, wickedly. How is it possible to name the name of Christ, and cover up the abuse of His lambs? How is it possible to name the name of Christ, and convince oneself that the Chief Shephers has no problem with His under-shepherds owning those for whom He died?

I ask these questions not of Mahaney, nor of Broadus, or Boyce, or Manly. I’m speaking of me. I’m speaking of you. I’m speaking of all of us who name the name of Christ, yet sin grievously. I’m speaking of Paul who saw in himself that which I see when I look at my own heart. “Wretched man that I am!”

And yet…and yet. And yet that is not all that Paul said. He went on.

“Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

The truth of the gospel is not to be found in the righteousness of those who proclaim it. The truth of the gospel is about the One to whom we run when we look inside and see the wickedness which yet remains. The truth of the gospel is not seen in our holiness. The truth of the gospel is seen in our Christ, who is a sufficient refuge for wretched men…like me.

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