Categories
Theology

A Brief History of Reformation Day

The son of a copper miner, Martin Luther was an exceptionally bright young man. He began studying law at the university level when he was only 13, and he completed his degree in the shortest amount of time allowed. When he was 21, Luther nearly died in a severe thunderstorm. He thought God was threatening him so in the middle of pouring rain and booming thunder, Luther vowed, “I will become a Monk if you save me!”

After becoming a Roman Catholic monk, Luther grew to be terrorized by God’s wrath because of his sin. Luther had a tremendously sensitive conscience. Sin tormented him so much so that he tried to justify himself before God by any means possible. Prayers, extreme fasting, self-flagellation, and even staying in the freezing cold were all attempts to get God on his side. Luther’s entire life was one, grand self-salvation project. He once said, “If anyone would have gained heaven as a monk, I would have been among them.”

Luther’s self-salvation project eventually waned and ultimately dissatisfied his soul. While he pursued a doctorate in Bible, he began to see how the gospel reveals justification is by faith, not works. This doctrine became the hallmark of Luther’s theology. After God revealed this to him, primarily through Psalms and Romans, Luther stated: “Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.” God’s salvation transformed Luther’s life and led to one of the most courageous, individual acts in Western history: nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Because of Luther’s new birth in Christ, he grew restless with the Catholic Church’s position on a number of issues, including justification, papal authority, the authority of Scripture, and forgiveness of sin. He particularly opposed the church concerning indulgences. An indulgence was a statement made by church clergy that was believed to remove or satisfy the punishment for sin. A person could purchase an indulgence to ensure that they would spend the least amount of time possible in purgatory. This communicated that sin was excused and salvation could be purchased with money. As a matter of fact, if you read Luther’s Theses, you’ll see that this issue of indulgences was Luther’s primary concern.

On All Saint’s Eve, October 31, 1517, Luther marched to the Castle Church to nail his theses to the door. Church doors in those days doubled as community message boards. Due to the next day (All Saint’s Day) being a church holiday, nearly everyone in Wittenberg would have seen his post within 24 hours as they arrived for worship gatherings. Luther did not want to start a revolution. He intended for the discussion to be primarily an academic affair, for Luther was an academic theologian at the time. Posting something on the church door then was like writing a blog post today. But he did not expect it to gain much traction alongside all of the other “postings.” However, what ensued was a city-wide, public discussion of the church’s practices. Luther wrote in Latin, which only academics and other educated people would have understood. But because of the newly invented printing press, his Theses were translated to German.

They didn’t spread as quickly as a viral video on YouTube, but they were distributed all over Germany within two weeks and around Europe within two months. Not bad for the sixteenth century.

Luther’s Theses called the church to repentance. Luther’s first thesis set the tone for the Reformation: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Indulgences had become treasured in the church, but Luther pushed back with perhaps his most majestic contention of all: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” (Thesis 62). Luther proclaimed that those who sold indulgences within the church were false prophets who declared peace, when there was no peace (Thesis 92; an allusion to Jer. 6:14). True confidence was found not in works or trying to buy salvation, but through faith in Christ (Theses 94-95). In Luther’s thought, justification by faith was the center of the gospel.

With his protest and with the independent work of other faithful people all over Europe, Luther helped sparked the greatest church movement since the end of the first century: the Protestant Reformation. Luther was called to recant of his beliefs in 1520. He did not recant, and he was excommunicated, exiled, and outlawed by Charles V in 1521. He went on to translate the Bible to German, wrote the Larger and Small Catechism, and became an accomplished hymn writer. Luther’s theology centered on Christ as the Word of God, the finished work of Christ on the cross, the relationship between law and gospel, and justification by faith.

Luther was not without flaw of course, but his legacy continues today. Any community of believers who proclaim the good news that we are justified by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus and not our works can thank God for Martin Luther’s efforts. It was God, after all, who gave Luther the grace to recognize error, point to the Scriptures, repent of sin, and stand for truth. It was God who gave Luther strength and endurance and courage to stand up against man-made teaching.

On Reformation Day, let’s not praise Luther. Luther’s legacy does not lie in his boldness or theology or being a revolutionary. His legacy lies in the fact that he testified to and trusted in One greater than himself, the Lord Jesus, the One on whom our salvation wholly depends.

Categories
Theology

Justification by Tweet

Late last week, I tweeted something that I thought was pretty funny, clever, and theologically informed. (The Tweet has since been deleted, and I won’t tell you what I wrote. The content of the tweet isn’t important and it won’t benefit anyone if I repeat it here.) I came home later that day and after talking to Carly she gently rebuked me about my Tweet. She said, “You know, that was really unnecessary. You kind of seemed like the theology police.”

What happened next can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit: I had this overwhelming sense that I actually needed to listen to her (crazy concept, I know…a husband listening to his wife’s correction). I looked at her, nodded and said, “Okay, I didn’t even see it that way. You might be right.” Then, I left to workout at the Y.

At the gym, I thought about what she said. God taught me a precious lesson. What was really happening, at a heart level, was that I was trying to justify myself by my Twitter account. By God’s grace, I don’t do this every time I churn out 140 characters and click “send.” But on this occasion, unfortunately, I was trying to show God, my Twitter followers, and even myself that I am righteous because of my good theology and my recognition of bad theology. I was exalting myself and my efforts rather than exalting Jesus and his work in the gospel.

Twitter didn’t exist in the first century, but if it had existed, I have no doubt disciples of Jesus, like the Galatians, would have been tempted to resort back to a works-based system via tweet rather than trust in what Christ had done for them. The Galatians put their hope in God’s law, in general, and circumcision, in particular. Here’s how Paul responded to their problem: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ… because by the works of the law no one will be justified” (2:16).

And here’s the interesting thing: Paul is writing this to Christians. The Galatians were forgetting that they were freely justified by faith. The result was that they were seeking to progress in the Christian life (what we call sanctification, see 3:3-5 and below) by depending on works instead of living out of the freedom Christ provided (see 5:1). They thought that adherence to God’s law would make them more acceptable to God and others than they already were because of Christ.

My temptation isn’t to add circumcision or dietary laws or even following the Ten Commandments to what Jesus has done. No, I feel more righteous, more sanctified, by showcasing my theological knowledge, my devotional discipline, or anything else that I think I do “well.” If Paul were writing to me he might have said, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by your Tweets, James?…Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by Twitter or theological debates or quiet times, or by hearing with faith?” (3:3, 5). In other words, my Tweets or blogs or devotional times or theological competence does not make me more acceptable to God than I already am in Christ. The pressure is off. The gospel secures my righteousness. What good news!

O Father, would that I hear the gospel with faith today! I am a supremely loved and perfectly accepted son because of Jesus’ righteousness-providing obedience and sin-bearing death. Let Christ-exalting Tweets flow from that!

Categories
Ministry Theology

Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses

Martin Luther helped spark a revival in the church that continues today. If you worship Jesus at any Protestant congregation, you can thank this German monk.

The son of a copper miner, Martin Luther was an exceptionally bright young man. He began studying law at the university level when he was only 13, and he completed his degree in the shortest amount of time allowed. When he was 21, Luther nearly died in a severe thunderstorm. He thought God was threatening him so he vowed, “I will become a Monk if you save me!”

As a Roman Catholic monk, Luther was terrorized by God’s wrath because of his sin. Luther had a tremendously sensitive conscience. Sin tormented him so much so that he tried to justify himself before God by any means possible. Prayers, extreme fasting, self-flagellation, and even staying in the freezing cold were all attempts to get God on his side. Luther’s entire life was one, grand self-salvation project. He once said, “If anyone would have gained heaven as a monk, I would have been among them.”

Luther’s self-salvation project eventually waned and ultimately dissatisfied his soul. While he pursued a doctorate in Bible, he began to see how the gospel is centered upon justification by faith, not works. After God revealed this to him, primarily through Psalms and Romans, Luther stated: “Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.” This God-salvation that transformed Luther’s life led to one of the most courageous, individual acts in world history: nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Because of Luther’s new birth in Christ, he grew restless with the Catholic Church’s position on a number of issues, including justification, papal authority, the authority of Scripture, and forgiveness of sin. He particularly opposed the church concerning indulgences. An indulgence was a statement made by the church that removed or satisfied the punishment for sin. A person could purchase an indulgence to ensure that they would spend the least amount of time possible in purgatory. This communicated to lay people that sin was not only excused but encouraged because salvation could be bought with money. Indulgences were thus the main issue in his theses.

On All Saint’s Eve, October 31, 1517, Luther marched to the Castle Church to nail his theses to the door. Church doors in those days served as community message boards. Due to the next day (All Saint’s Day) being a church holiday, nearly everyone in Wittenberg would have seen his post within 24 hours as they arrived for services. Luther was calling for a city-wide, public discussion of the church’s wicked practices. Luther wrote in Latin, but the theses were translated to German and because of the invention of the printing press they were spread around Germany within two weeks and around Europe within two months.

The Ninety-Five Theses called the church to repentance. Luther’s first thesis set the tone for the Reformation: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Indulgences had become the treasure of the church, but Luther pushed back with perhaps his most majestic contention of all: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” (Thesis 62).

Luther proclaimed that those who sold indulgences within the church were false prophets who declared peace, when there was no peace (Thesis 92). True confidence was found not in works or trying to buy salvation, but through faith in Christ and suffering with him through tribulations (Theses 94-95).

With this protest, Luther sparked the greatest church revolution since the end of the first century: the Protestant Reformation. Luther was called to recant of his beliefs in 1520. He denied and was excommunicated, exiled, and outlawed by Charles V in 1521. He went on to translate the Bible to German, wrote the Larger and Small Catechism, and was even an accomplished hymn writer. Luther’s doctrine was not without flaw, but his legacy continues. On this Reformation Day, however, we do not celebrate Martin Luther. We celebrate Jesus whom he pointed to, and the God whom he received grace from to recognize error, repent of sin, and stand for truth.

Thank you Father, for your servant Martin Luther, and how you used him to restore your church back to the gospel of grace found only in Jesus Christ!

Categories
Life

Jesus: Son of God, Son of Man

I’m starting an in-depth study of Romans, so throughout this year as I work through the book I’ll post some of my notes here on the blog.  Here are some thoughts from Romans 1:3-4:

Paul says that the gospel of God is directly “concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”  The gospel is never removed from the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Paul does not give a systematic Christology in the rest of this letter, so it is important for us to note these two verses and Paul’s theology of who Jesus is and what he did.  These verses tell us two major things about Jesus:

  1. Jesus is the Son of Man: The gospel of God (the Father) is “concerning his Son,” Jesus, “who was descended from David according to the flesh.”  Jesus was born fully human, with human genes, a human family line, of human flesh.  This was to fulfill the Scripture (cf. v. 2) that the Messiah would come from David (see 2 Sam. 7:1-17).  The phrase “according to the flesh” implies that he has another nature, namely, a divine one.
  2. Jesus is the Son of God: The gospel of God (the Father) is “concerning his Son,” Jesus, “who…was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.”  The phrase “in power” can mean, “Jesus was powerfully declared to be the Son of God” (Luther), or it can mean that Jesus has been declared the Son of God “in possession of that ‘power’ which belonged to him as the only begotten of the Father” (Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown; Calvin; Hodge).  It seems that the latter would make more sense.  After Jesus rose from the dead, he was no longer marked by lowliness and human limitation.  He became the powerful King, ruling over the world with authority (see Matt. 28:19-20; 1 Cor. 15:25-26).  Jesus was God before the world ever existed — even before his resurrection.  Jesus was in the beginning with God (John 1:1-3), is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), and is the exact representation of God’s nature (Heb. 1:1-3).  The point in verse 4 is to show that after his resurrection, Jesus took on a different role than he did before: he was no longer simply Son of God as Messiah, but now Son of God as Messiah and the powerful, reigning Lord (Moo, Epistle to the Romans, p. 49).
Categories
Life

Try to be absolutely clear when you say, “I am a Christian”

I don’t really like labels in Christianity, because on the surface, they seem to divide people who are Christians.  That can be true.  But it is also true that labels can be helpful when talking to people who are not Christian, but say they are.  In today’s pluralistic, postmodern, theological buffet-type culture, we must be able to distinguish our beliefs from other false ideas about Christianity.

To say to someone, “I’m a Christian,” is biblically correct, and should be sufficient (it would have been in the first century).  At the same time a friend might say to me, “I’m a Christian,” but it’s evident that they are no more a Christian than I am an oak tree.  How can I make sure that my misguided friend understands the difference  in our beliefs?

Consider this analogy.  I ask my friend what being Christian means to him.  He says, “I go to church.  I pray before meals.  I try to be a good person.”  Then he asks me what being Christian means to me.  I say, “I am a born-again, Evangelical.  That means I believe the Bible is the infallible, authoritative word of God and that the only way to be forgiven of sin, escape the wrath of God, and have eternal life is justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ , who died on the cross and rose from the dead.”

When I defined being a Christian for myself, I put a label on myself (I use the word “label” here kind of loosely).  I labeled myself as an Evangelical (I could have even included the word “Protestant” in there too).  But the important thing is that I gave the label a precise definition.  The term “Evangelical” was practically synonymous with “Protestant” during the Reformation era.  The two main issues during this time were authority and justification.  The Catholic Church believed authority belonged to the Pope, and that justification could be purchased through indulgences.  The Reformers believed that authority was in the Word of God, and that justification was by grace and faith alone in Jesus.  This mean they protested (Protestant) against the false doctrines of the Catholic church, and identified themselves with the evangel (the true gospel of Scripture).

Because some people believe that Jesus is no more than a great moral teacher, and that the Bible is just a grab-bag story book with some good insights, we must be crystal clear in communicating what being “Christian” really means.  And sometimes, whether we want to or not, lableing ourselves might be helpful.