Why the Reformation Still Matters

by Michael Reeves

 

Last year, on October 31, Pope Francis announced that after five hundred years, Protestants and Catholics now “have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another.” From that, it sounds as if the Reformation was an unfortunate and unnecessary squabble over trifles, a childish outburst that we can all put behind us now that we have grown up.

But tell that to Martin Luther, who felt such liberation and joy at his rediscovery of justification by faith alone that he wrote, “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” Tell that to William Tyndale, who found it such “merry, glad and joyful tidings” that it made him “sing, dance, and leap for joy.” Tell it to Thomas Bilney, who found it gave him “a marvelous comfort and quietness, insomuch that my bruised bones leaped for joy.” Clearly, those first Reformers didn’t think they were picking a juvenile fight; as they saw it, they had discovered glad tidings of great joy.

Good News in 1517

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Europe had been without a Bible the people could read for something like a thousand years. Thomas Bilney had thus never encountered the words “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Instead of the Word of God, they were left to the understanding that God is a God who enables people to earn their own salvation. As one of the teachers of the day liked to put it, “God will not deny grace to those who do their best.” Yet what were meant as cheering words left a very sour taste for everyone who took them seriously. How could you be sure you really had done your best? How could you tell if you had become the sort of just person who merited salvation?

Martin Luther certainly tried. “I was a good monk,” he wrote, “and kept my order so strictly that I could say that if ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I should have entered in.” And yet, he found:

My conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, “You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.” The more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weak and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more daily I found it more uncertain, weaker and more troubled.

According to Roman Catholicism, Luther was quite right to be unsure of heaven. Confidence of a place in heaven was considered errant presumption and was one of the charges made against Joan of Arc at her trial in 1431. There, the judges proclaimed,

This woman sins when she says she is as certain of being received into Paradise as if she were already a partaker of . . . glory, seeing that on this earthly journey no pilgrim knows if he is worthy of glory or of punishment, which the sovereign judge alone can tell.

That judgment made complete sense within the logic of the system: if we can only enter heaven because we have (by God’s enabling grace) become personally worthy of it, then of course no one can be sure. By that line of reasoning, I can only have as much confidence in heaven as I have confidence in my own sinlessness.

That was exactly why the young Martin Luther screamed with fear when as a student he was nearly struck by lightning in a thunderstorm. He was terrified of death, for without knowledge of Christ’s sufficient and gracious salvation—without knowledge of justification by faith alone—he had no hope of heaven.

And that was why his rediscovery in Scripture of justification by faith alone felt like entering paradise through open gates. It meant that, instead of all his angst and terror, he could now write:

When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: “I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.”

And that was why the Reformation gave people such a taste for sermons and Bible reading. For, to be able to read God’s words and to see in them such good news that God saves sinners, not on the basis of how well they repent but entirely by His own grace, was like a burst of Mediterranean sunshine into the gray world of religious guilt.

Good News in 2017

None of the goodness or relevance of the Reformation’s insights have faded over the last five hundred years. The answers to the same key questions still make all the difference between human hopelessness and happiness. What will happen to me when I die? How can I know? Is justification the gift of a righteous status (as the Reformers argued), or a process of becoming more holy (as Rome asserts)? Can I confidently rely for my salvation on Christ alone, or does my salvation also rest on my own efforts toward and success in achieving holiness?

Almost certainly, what confuses people into thinking that the Reformation is a bit of history we can move beyond is the idea that it was just a reaction to some problem of the day. But the closer one looks, the clearer it becomes: the Reformation was not principally a negative movement about moving away from Rome and its corruption; it was a positive movement, about moving toward the gospel. And that is precisely what preserves the validity of the Reformation for today. If the Reformation had been a mere reaction to a historical situation five hundred years ago, one would expect it to be over. But as a program to move ever closer to the gospel, it cannot be over.

Another objection is that today’s culture of positive thinking and self-esteem has wiped away all perceived need for the sinner to be justified. Not many today find themselves wearing hair-shirts and enduring all-night prayer vigils in the freezing cold to earn God’s favor. All in all, then, Luther’s problem of being tortured by guilt before the divine Judge is dismissed as a sixteenth-century problem, and his solution of justification by faith alone is therefore dismissed as unnecessary for us today.

But it is in fact precisely into this context that Luther’s solution rings out as such happy and relevant news. For, having jettisoned the idea that we might ever be guilty before God and therefore in need of His justification, our culture has succumbed to the old problem of guilt in subtler ways and with no means to answer. Today, we are all bombarded with the message that we will be more loved when we make ourselves more attractive. It may not be God-related, and yet it is  still a religion of works, and one that is deeply embedded. For that, the Reformation has the most sparkling good news. Luther speaks words that cut through the gloom like a glorious and utterly unexpected sunbeam:

The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. . . . Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore, sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.

Once Again, the Time Is Ripe

Five hundred years later, the Roman Catholic Church has still not been reformed. For all the warm ecumenical language used by so many Protestants and Roman Catholics, Rome still repudiates justification by faith alone. It feels it can do so because Scripture is not regarded as the supreme authority to which popes, councils, and doctrine must conform. And because Scripture is so relegated, biblical literacy is not encouraged, and thus millions of poor Roman Catholics are still kept from the light of God’s Word.

Outside Roman Catholicism, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is routinely shied away from as insignificant, wrongheaded, or perplexing. Some new perspectives on what the Apostle Paul meant by justification, especially when they have tended to shift the emphasis away from any need for personal conversion, have, as much as anything, confused people, leaving the article that Luther said cannot be given up or compromised as just that—given up or compromised.

Now is not a time to be shy about justification or the supreme authority of the Scriptures that proclaim it. Justification by faith alone is no relic of the history books; it remains today as the only message of ultimate liberation, the message with the deepest power to make humans unfurl and flourish. It gives assurance before our holy God and turns sinners who attempt to buy God off into saints who love and fear Him.

And oh what opportunities we have today for spreading this good news! Five hundred years ago, Gutenberg’s recent invention of the printing press meant that the light of the gospel could spread at a speed never before witnessed. Tyndale’s Bibles and Luther’s tracts could go out by the thousands. Today, digital technology has given us another Gutenberg moment, and the same message can now be spread at speeds Luther could never have imagined.

Both the needs and the opportunities are as great as they were five hundred years ago—in fact, they are greater. Let us then take courage from the faithfulness of the Reformers and hold the same wonderful gospel high, for it has lost none of its glory or its power to dispel our darkness.

__________________________

Dr. Michael Reeves is president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in Oxford, England. He is author of several books, including Rejoicing in Christ. He is the featured teacher on the Ligonier teaching series The English Reformation and the Puritans.

John Calvin and the Reformation

From an article at Protestant Reformers

Of all the great Protestant reformers, John Calvin is considered to be second in importance only to Martin Luther. However, when considering only the impact of his theology there is no reformer that compares with Calvin.

John Calvin was the theologian of the Protestant Reformation. God used Calvin to restore great truths which had been squashed by the Catholic church during the Dark Ages. His teachings (especially on predestination) were revolutionary in the 16th century and are still very controversial today. He also crystallized many of the Biblical doctrines that fellow Protestant reformers like John Wycliffe, John Huss and Martin Luther had initially preached.  

John Calvin was born in Noyon, France on July 10, 1509. Calvin was a brilliant student even at a very young age. At the age of only fourteen, he entered University of Paris, then the most prestigious university in Europe. He excelled in his studies and by the age of eighteen, he had earned his Master of Arts degree.

At this point his father persuaded him to take up the study of law (like Martin Luther). However, at the age of only 21, Calvin began to be drawn to the study of God’s word. The study of law and its prosperous career path no longer held a great appeal to him. Although he finished out his doctoral program, his passion was already developing for the Scriptures.

Calvin began to understand that many of the teachings of the Catholic church did not harmonize with the scriptures. He joined those that were calling for reforms and renewal in the church. This eventually led to persecution and Calvin was forced to flee France after his close friend openly proclaimed Reformation teachings during his acceptance speech as Dean of the University of Paris.

Calvin found refuge in Switzerland along with many other exiled reformers of his day. It was in Basel that Calvin published his initial version of Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536. The initial version contained only six chapters, but would eventually grow to eighty chapters.

The Institutes of Christian Religion was distributed in France and Calvin even sent a copy to King Francis I. The book gained wide acclaim among Protestant circles, although few knew who the author was. It was destined to become a classic among Christian literature.

As Calvin was travelling through Switzerland he made an overnight stop in the city of Geneva. The city of Geneva and Calvin were destined to become synonymous, but Calvin only intended to spend the night in the city. However, a Protestant evangelist named William Farel persuaded him to stay there and help him establish the truth in Geneva. At first Calvin adamantly refused. He was not seeking and most definitely did not want a leadership role within the Protestant movement. Calvin wanted only to find quiet solitude where he could continue his writings. Farel finally pointed his finger at Calvin and rebuked him saying, “If you refuse to devote yourself with us to the work . . . God will condemn you.” Calvin stayed in Geneva.

Calvin poured all of his energies into not only studying the Word of God, but establishing a reformation society in the city of Geneva. Like the early church in the book of Acts, Calvin turned the world of the citizens of Geneva upside down. He condemned not only the false purity of the Roman Catholic church, but also the sinful living of the immoral sinners. He taught the common people on their level, so they could develop an understanding of God’s word. Calvin was very strict in only allowing those that were living according to the Word of God to participate in communion. Those that failed to live up to the Bible’s standard were excommunicated.

Not everyone appreciated the changes that Calvin was bringing to the city. In 1538, Calvin and Farel were expelled from Geneva after Calvin called the city government a “council of the devil” during one of his fiery sermons. Calvin was told that everyone had to be able to participate in communion regardless their lifestyle or he would have to leave. Calvin left rather than compromise, no doubt discouraged that his labor had yielded so little.

Back in Basel, Calvin was overcome by depression and thought of being rejected. He felt his ministry was a failure and vowed to never again to pastor a church. Although shortly thereafter while visiting the city of Strasbourg, Calvin was approached by a fellow reformer named Martin Bucer. Bucer wanted Calvin to move to Strasbourg to pastor a church of Protestant refugees from France. Calvin refused. Bucer then reproved Calvin, “God will know how to find the rebellious servant, as He found Jonah.” Once again Calvin answered the call of God for his life and moved to Strasbourg to pastor this church.

At this time Strasbourg was a hub of Reformation activity. Calvin worked hand-in-hand with fellow reformers in the city for three years. It was during this time that Calvin’s notoriety began to grow near and wide. Even the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V invited Calvin to speak on several occasions.

After Calvin had left Geneva, the Catholic Church sprung into action to try to reclaim the city for the papacy. An infamous letter was written by Cardinal Sadolet to the city council posing the question, “be more expedient for your salvation to believe and follow what the Catholic Church has approved with general consent for more than fifteen hundred years, or innovations introduced within these twenty-five years by crafty men.”

The councilmen of Geneva had no idea how to respond to Cardinal Sadolet and turned to John Calvin to pen a response. Calvin immediately brushed aside any hesitations he had about helping those who had rejected him just a few years earlier and boldly picked up the banner of the Protestant Reformation once again. His response is one of the most famous of the writings of the Reformation and is simply titled A Reply to Cardinal Sadolet. Calvin expertly refuted Sadolet’s claims.

“We deny not that those over whom you preside are churches of Christ, but we maintain that the Roman pontiff, with his whole herd of pseudo-bishops, who have seized upon the pastor’s office, are ravening wolves, whose only study has hitherto been to scatter and trample upon the kingdom of Christ, filling it with ruin and devastation. Nor are we the first to make the complaint.”

Cardinal Sadolet never answered Calvin’s response and from that point on Geneva was staunchly Protestant.

Shortly thereafter, Calvin was invited to return to Geneva. Calvin once again opposed the call to leadership, but finally agreed to go for a few months. However, Calvin was destined to spend to remainder of his life in the city of Geneva.

When Calvin returned to Geneva, neither he nor the citizens of that fair city were the same as they had been just a few short years earlier. They now welcomed Calvin with open arms and a willing heart to accept the teachings of God’s word. For Calvin’s part, he had gained in both maturity and humility during his years of exile. He set about immediately organizing not only the city of Geneva, but the Protestant faith.

It was here that Calvin was used by God to promote the theology of the Protestant Reformation. That included restoring the truths of predestination and election as the apostle Paul had taught them. These truths would become so closely associated with Calvin than for centuries later they would be referred to as Calvinism.

Calvin and Martin Luther initially held a high degree of respect for one another. However, the two great reformers eventually separated over a doctrinal issue regarding the interpretation of the eucharist.

John Calvin died on May 27, 1564 of natural causes. His followers were determined to prevent a cult worship of Calvin to develop similar to the veneration of the saints that was taking place within the Catholic church. As a result, Calvin was buried in an unmarked grave and to this day no one knows the exact location of Calvin’s grave.

Quotes

“A man will be justified by faith when, excluded from righteousness of works, he by faith lays hold of the righteousness of Christ, and clothed in it, appears in the sight of God not as a sinner, but as righteous.”

“God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation.”

“I consider looseness with words no less of a defect than looseness of the bowels.”
“It behooves us to accomplish what God requires of us, even when we are in the greatest despair respecting the results.”

“No man is excluded from calling upon God, the gate of salvation is set open unto all men: neither is there any other thing which keepeth us back from entering in, save only our own unbelief.”

“Our prayer must not be self-centered. It must arise not only because we feel our own need as a burden we must lay upon God, but also because we are so bound up in love for our fellow men that we feel their need as acutely as our own. To make intercession for men is the most powerful and practical way in which we can express our love for them.”

“There is no knowing that does not begin with knowing God.”

“We should ask God to increase our hope when it is small, awaken it when it is dormant, confirm it when it is wavering, strengthen it when it is weak, and raise it up when it is overthrown.”

How the Reformers Rediscovered the Holy Spirit and True Conversion

by Sinclair Ferguson

 

Luther’s story is well known; Calvin’s less so. Luther was wrestling with the concept of the righteousness of God, and had come to hate it; Calvin had an immense thirst for a secure knowledge of God, but had not found it. While not the whole truth, there is something in the notion that Luther was looking for a gracious God while Calvin was seeking for a true and assured knowledge of him.

In Luther’s case, the ordinances of late medieval Catholicism could not “give the guilty conscience peace or wash away the stain.” In Calvin’s case, neither the Church nor the immense intellectual discipline he had displayed in his teens and early twenties, and certainly not all his acquisition of the skills of a post-medieval humanist scholar, could bring him to an assured knowledge of God.

ROMANS 1:16

For all the differences in their backgrounds, educations, dispositions, and personalities, a good case can be made for thinking that Romans 1:16ff played a crucial role in the conversion narratives of both these reformers. We know that Luther wrestled hard with the meaning of Romans 1:16–17. He came to hate the words, finding in them an insoluble conundrum. How can “the righteousness of God” be constitutive of the good news of which Paul was so unashamed? Luther felt keenly that all it did was to damn him.

But then, as he later wrote, his eyes were opened. He had, as it were, been blind while reading the text; he had seen the words, he had not grasped their meaning. Now he saw that this righteousness was the righteousness of God by which the sinner is justified. The gates of paradise swung open; he felt himself to be born again.

Calvin seems to have been deeply affected by the verses that follow in Romans 1:18ff on the knowledge of God revealed, possessed, repressed, exchanged for idolatry, and ultimately abandoned by humanity—with faith in Jesus Christ as the alone path back to knowing God. Certainly, Ford Lewis Battles, the translator of the final Latin edition (1559) of Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion thought so. I am inclined to agree, given the tenor of Calvin’s theology and its constant focus on knowing God the Father through the Son and by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

WHAT WAS THE REFORMATION ABOUT?

If asked, most of us might instinctively say that the Reformation was about justification or about (the later coined) sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura, solus Christus, and soli Deo Gloria. But in fact, it was about much more.

For none of these five solas exists in isolation from the others or more especially in isolation from the Holy Spirit. He is the sine qua non of each. Thus, the Reformation was a rediscovery of the Holy Spirit. Calvin, as B.B. Warfield famously remarked, was “the theologian of the Holy Spirit.” Faith is not born in us apart from the Spirit. Grace saves and keeps, but it is not a substance received by us but the disposition of God toward us that is made known to us only through the Spirit. The Scriptures come to us from the mouth of God, as the Spirit breathes out the Word of God through human authors. Furthermore, as Calvin stressed, all that Christ has done for us is of no value to us unless we are united to him—and this takes place through the Spirit. He thus brings glory to the Father and the Son.

What then did the Reformers discover? Luther’s references to the Spirit, like most of his theology, are not found tidily packed in their own separate compartment. Calvin comes nearer to a systematic presentation in The Institutes. But both made a simple but monumental discovery.

A REDISCOVERY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

Increasingly over the centuries, the Church had usurped the role of the Holy Spirit in the economy of salvation. The most obvious indication of that emerged in the way—indeed quasi-physical way—grace and salvation were mediated to the individual through the sacraments. In a sense, for all practical purposes, salvation was locked up in the sacraments—with the keys kept safely in the pockets of the priests and prelates of the Church.

The consequences of this were theologically and existentially disastrous. The role of the Spirit had been usurped; his authority was sequestered by the priesthood. Consequently, instead of experiencing assurance of forgiveness and personal knowledge of God, both of which are the birth right of every true child of God, members of the Church were kept in doubt and suspense about their salvation. As Luther saw, they were being urged to build up righteousness with the aid of the sacraments, so that, perhaps, they just might develop a faith so suffused with perfect love that they would have become justifiable.

This was the medieval doctrine of “heaven helps those who help themselves,” the justification of those who have been made just, the justification of the righteous-by-sacramental cooperation. While the system enabled the Church to claim this justification was “by grace,” this grace was never “alone.” It required co-operation and progress. But how could people be sure they had “done enough”? No one could be sanguine about his or her salvation. How could they be?

It was just here, for Luther and Calvin, that the Holy Spirit entered, opening eyes to the fact that all our salvation and every part of it is found in Christ alone (as Calvin loved to say); here the Holy Spirit entered, opening blind eyes, melting hardened affections, and drawing forth the response of saving faith.

No wonder Luther felt himself born again, and that “the Gates of Paradise had been flung open.”

No wonder, if Calvin experienced his “sudden” or “unexpected” conversion when he realized the Church had taught him “knowledge falsely so-called.” She had wrongly interposed herself between the believer and Christ. But then the Spirit came and Calvin discovered that every part of salvation is found in Christ alone.

No wonder then, that John Knox said the explanation for the Reformation was that God gave the Holy Spirit to ordinary men in great abundance.

___________

Sinclair Ferguson is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.

Useful Links for Open Minds

The following links represent the history of John Calvin & Calvinism. They are being posted due to my having received some comments lately from a few folks who really hate all things Calvin, mostly due to never having been exposed to honest and objective scholarship relating to reformed theology. I have published a couple of those comments but left others in moderation due to their vitriol and complete lack of intelligent thought (John Calvin was NOT the tyrant of Geneva, nor did he murder Michael Servetus).

I pray for the authors of those comments, that their minds and hearts would be open to actually considering John Calvin, his times & history, and the actual origins of reformed thought and theology.

Some or all of them might also be useful for those with open minds. Share them as much as you would like.

As a final note, know that I personally believe concerning the doctrines of sovereign grace was formed well before I engaged in serious study of Calvinism. In fact, it was reading the text of scripture that persuaded me that fallen men cannot and will not make a move toward Christ and the Cross unless God firstly divinely intervene in a person’s life and heart.

Enjoy!

Articles:

Why I Became a Calvinist

Cake or Death: How I became a Calvinist

Calvinism and Arminianism

False Views on John Calvin

John Calvin The man behind the name – Calvin College

John Calvin Leads Geneva Reform

John Calvin

John Calvin’s Geneva

The Geneva of John Calvin

The Origins of Calvinism

Theologian for the Ages: John Calvin

Was Geneva A Theocracy?

Who Was John Calvin and Why Was He Important?

 

Seminary level Audio Course Lessons are here. (I’ve listened to them all.)

YouTube course on Luther and Calvin is here. (I have not seen yet There are 35 videos.)

“And such WERE some of you.”

Christianity Today magazine, in its now standard FOX News style (we report, you decide) recently published an article called What It’s Like to Be Gay at Wheaton College. When I received CT’s email alert the title caught my attention so I read the article. Needless to say, CT lived up to its reputation of not taking a stand about anything in the article. I came away from my reading angry again at CT for not providing any sort of Biblical perspective on various issues to which the article pointed. I was deeply saddened that Wheaton College seems to be on ‘the downgrade’, as Spurgeon would undoubtedly claim.

Wheaton College is not alone in treating homosexual tendencies differently than other ‘tendencies’ that some people seem plagued with. If someone ‘comes out’ as homosexual in a public Christian setting like the young man who authored the CT article, he is applauded for his/her courage and other Christians line up to offer their love and support, whatever that means. Apparently it doesn’t mean offering Christ as being able to conquer any and all sins, whether actual behavior or just a tendency toward that which God calls sin.

The apostle Paul would I think disagree vehemently with the approach many Christians and Christian institutions are taking in not addressing homosexual tendencies as ‘sin’. For that I call them hypocrites. Hear Paul:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such WERE some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:9-11) (Emphasis mine)

In the above passage, Paul, in speaking to believers in Corinth, lists nine sorts of people whose lives are marked by patterns sinful behavior. He numbers them among the ‘unrighteous’ who will not inherit the Kingdom of God. I submit to you that for every pattern of behavior Paul names, there is also a ‘tendency’ toward the behavior that by nature is also sinful!

Would Wheaton College or other students offer the same love and affirmation it affords the homosexual who ‘bravely comes out’ to the sexually immoral (in other ways), idolaters, adulterers, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers?

The Apostle Paul certainly didn’t put homosexuals in a separate category, so why do we? Paul didn’t ‘affirm’ one type of lost sinner and condemn the rest. He said they were all headed for a fiery eternity. Then he added “and such WERE some of you”. He also told us how it is that some of them WERE in the list.

“But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:9-11)

There were among the believers in Corinth those who had been sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who practice homosexuality, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers who had repented and believed the gospel and were now firmly in the Savior’s grasp and bound for Glory.

In summary:

1. Lifestyles of sin have at their root, sinful tendencies.

2. In Christ, with the power of the Holy Spirit, sinful behavior and tendencies can be overcome, if we recognize sin for what it is, repent of it and believe in Christ.

3. If we don’t call every sin ‘sin’ and treat those who struggle with sin equal love, concern, as well as Biblical counsel and guidance, we are 1) hypocrites and 2) we do great harm to those who need guidance and deliverance, NOT affirmation.

It Has Pagan Roots!

Let’s talk about decorated trees and nativity scenes for a minute. Forget the Christmas ‘culture’ wars that we sometimes make too much of, what about the Christmas ‘pagan roots’ wars? OK, maybe calling the whole ‘Christmas is based on a pagan holiday’ thing doesn’t deserve ‘war’ status, but it does surface every year about this time.

Like many children I grew up with Christmas trees, nativity scenes and traditions of gift giving. For our family everything ‘Christmas’ focused first and foremost on the birth of Jesus Christ, the savior of the world. I knew absolutely nothing about ancient pagan idolatrous practices, festivals or holidays. It was about Jesus’ birth, love and exchanging gifts.

Are Christmas trees and nativity scenes examples of ‘Christianized’ pagan idolatrous activity? I really don’t know. Was Martin Luther thinking of old Egyptian and Roman traditions associated with false gods when he thought of adding decorations to evergreen trees already used by Christians as a symbol of Christmas? I don’t know that either.

Were the painters of nativity scenes thinking about pagan idol worshippers dancing around statues in the woods, or were they thinking about the description of Jesus’ birth given to us in the Bible and wanted to use their God given talents to put on canvas a remembrance of a special moment in history? I don’t know that either.

Well Dan, what DO you know?

I know that there was an issue a long time about food offered to idols and being a stumbling block to brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s in 1 Corinthians 8:

1Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.

4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Cor 8:1-9, ESV)

There are ‘stronger’ and ‘weaker’ believers. Those who know that idols are really ‘nothing’ are not to get puffed up about it, and are not to cause a ‘weaker’ brother to stumble. In Romans 14, Paul said that it is better not to do anything to cause another brother to stumble. It seems that the real issue here is spiritual growth and health. That’s what I know.

If I want to get into a ‘pagan roots’ discussion that might actually matter, it might be about something like ‘glossolalia’, or the ‘speaking in tongues’ that is not the Biblical gift of speaking in unlearned real languages. There’s some really interesting history in that one!

But actually, rather than debate ‘pagan roots’, I think it might be more helpful to take a cue from Paul and stick to discussing Christ crucified for our sins.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Expository Preaching: Cheating & Easy?

At least that is what Andy Stanley said in a recent interviewclip_image002
when asked what he thought about preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible. That is his first of two reasons why he does not believe in expository preaching.

It is obvious that Andy Stanley has never preached verse by verse through any book of the Bible because if he had, he would never make that statement. It is a challenge to give the true and real meaning of the text as intended by the author and as understood by the original recipients when you have to consider such things as historical background, the meanings of the original languages, the literary context, etc.

What is cheating because it is easy is what Andy engages in, topical sermons where you find verses to hang on your petty human thinking so that you meet the “felt needs” of people.

“In what more resembles “sermonettes for Christianettes”, casual discourses are becoming increasingly focused on massaging “felt needs” rather than allowing the biblical text to expose real needs.” – Steve Lawson(Famine in the Land)

Furthermore Andy does not believe in verse by verse preaching because that is not how you grow people. Andy is right. Ok now, just breathe for a moment and recuperate from what you just read. Andy is right in that simply preaching the Word is not how any person grows people. If you want to grow people, then follow Andy’s pattern. But if you want God to grow people, follow the pattern of the early church.

So how did the early church grow?

Answer: The conviction of the Holy Spirit and the sovereign call of God:

“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” – Acts 2:37–41

Answer: Simply the Lord:

And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” – Acts 2:47

Answer: The Word of God

“But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.” – Acts 4:4

“And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” – Acts 6:7

And why did the word of God continue to increase?

“And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” – Acts 6:2-4

Andy Stanley must consider himself above the early apostles who considered it “not right” to give up preaching the Word. Instead of devoting himself to the ministry of the Word like the early apostles, Andy has devoted himself to “growing people” through marketing the seeker-sensitive way.

It would behoove Andy Stanley, and anyone else who is not committed to expounding the Scripture verse by verse, to heed the following prophetic words!

“To an alarming extent the glory is departing from the pulpit. The basic reason for this gloomy condition is obvious. That which imparts the glory has been taken away from the center of so much of our modern preaching and placed on the periphery. The Word of God has been denied the throne and given a subordinate place. Where such exposition and authoritative declaration of the Word of God are abandoned, Ichabod, the glory has departed, must be written over the preacher and over the pulpit from which he preaches.” – Merrill Unger

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HT: No Compromise Radio