Reformation Day

Today marks the anniversary of the day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. In honor of this today’s post is dedicated to Martin Luther and his work in the reformation.

The Darkness

In today’s culture there is a darkness that pervades the day. It is a darkness that stems from a lack of moral clarity, a lack of biblical knowledge, and an overall distain for the Creator. The darkness, which is indisputably heavy, seems to be overwhelming at times. One wonders how the Church can possibly deal with this darkness. Can scripture alone really change people? The answer to this question can be found in a long lineage of faithful churchmen.

Despite the current darkness a careful review of church history will reveal a darker age. The medieval age, which may have been the darkest of all, saw the church sink to new lows. The overall illiteracy of the culture caused an overall biblical illiteracy within the church, and the lack of biblical wisdom left both the church and the culture with no moral guidelines. Many of the “church priests” took concubines and engaged in adulterous affairs, while others enjoyed gluttonous lives at the expense of their parishioners. As one looks back at this period it is hard to find even a flicker of light. However, the return to the Scriptures was inevitable. Christ’s bride could not stay estranged from her bridegroom.

There were early attempts to stem the tide of darkness with God’s word. Men like Wycliffe, Hus, and Savonarola all fought for (and with) God’s Word. These men, while never seeing all of the influence they had, laid the foundation for the revival of the reformation. In all of this God sovereignly controlled the events of history so as to keep the promise of Christ:

“…I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
Matthew 16:18

The Light in the Darkness: Martin Luther

As we look back in history at this age of darkness it seems almost as if “the gates of Hades” had surrounded the church, and were closing in quickly. However, God was sovereignly in control. In order to keep his promise, God provided a light to shine in this dark age. That light shined through an obscure Augustinian monk who found a love for Scripture. This now famous monk, none other than Martin Luther, sent shockwaves throughout the world by declaring Scripture to be his sole authority.

Much could be said about Martin Luther’s life; all of which demonstrates the work of God in his life. One of the clearest examples of God’s work in Luther’s life is seen in a trip that Luther made to Rome. As a Catholic Monk of the Augustinian order Luther greatly anticipated his trip to Rome. Rome was the hub of church activity, and the location of many relics that were dear to the church. What Luther found upon his arrival in Rome was not at all what he expected, but it was exactly what God had planned for him. One of Luther’s first impressions about Rome was that it was “but a dead carcass compared with its ancient splendor.” Despite being shocked by many of the unbiblical practices that he saw in Rome Luther’s faith in the teaching of the Roman Church was not yet shaken.

After returning from Rome Luther continued in his personal studies at Erfurt as part of the black cloister. He was then transferred to Wittenberg where he received his doctorate, and became a teacher at the University of Wittenberg. During his time at the University of Wittenberg Luther focused the brunt of his attention on the study of the Apostle Paul’s teaching. In the course of his studies Luther could not stop coming back to one particular teaching of Paul; “The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11) Again and Again Luther kept coming to this text, each time more and more troubled by its content. Through this study Luther finally came to realize that by acceptance of the work of Christ God would impute Christ’s righteousness upon the sinful man alleviating the punishment for his sin. In God’s word Luther found the Gospel, and accepted it. Luther looked back on this time as his birthday in the faith. During this time Luther came into possession of Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament. From that point on this was what Luther taught from. Luther continued to teach through the book of Romans, and began to see the discrepancies between the teachings of Rome, and the teachings of the book of Romans. Luther was now motivated by a love for God’s Word, and the newfound discovery of God’s grace. Armed with these tools, and a calling from God, Luther shined the light of the gospel in a dark age. His ministry was accomplished at a great cost due to unimaginable opposition. But at every step of the way Luther’s steps were guided by the hand of God.

As Luther grew in his faith so also did his discontent with the teachings of Rome. Between the years of 1515 and 1516 a note of protest can be found in Luther’s preaching. He was disturbed by Rome’s view of works. He was also concerned with the collection of relics, and the belief that they held some type of spiritual power. This was a particular concern for Luther because his own civil lord, the elector of Saxony, had collected hundreds of relics in the Wittenberg cathedral.

It was in 1517 that Luther’s protest, and call for reform reached its boiling point. In September of that year Luther wrote his 97 theses. This document is largely overlooked because it was on October 31st, 1517 that Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. This, for many, marks the beginning of the Reformation. From here on out Luther would be viewed by the Roman church as a heretic, and by many of the people as a hero.

The Message of Light: The Gospel

It would be a mistake to view the Reformation as the product of one man. In fact, it would be a mistake to view the Reformation as a product of many men. The Reformation was a product of the Gospel of Christ, and the spread of that Gospel through the preaching of the Word of God. Its theo-centric nature was what made the Reformation so powerful. Martin Luther, as well as the other Reformers, saw the necessity of the Gospel and made it the foundation of the Reformation. John Piper, writing on justification by faith, had this to say: “And there was darkness. The Reformation was needed. And the discovery and preaching of justification by faith alone was the center of the lightning bolt of truth that lit the world.” For the first time in many years the common man was taught the Gospel that is found in the Bible. For many it was the first time they had ever heard a churchman teach that “the just shall live by faith.” This amazing truth was the lifeblood of the Reformation.

In Romans 4:5 we read, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” The teaching of this text is what the reformers would eventually call “sola fide.” This doctrine of “faith alone” means that works are not required for salvation, and additionally faith is not a work. Rather, faith is what unites us with Christ. Through our faith God sees us as united with Christ. He literally sees Christ in us. He sees the righteous life that was required of us lived out by Christ. He sees the infinite punishment demanded by our rebellion received on the cross. This is why faith is “credited as righteousness.” Luther had this to say about our justification by faith, “This doctrine is the head and the cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot see for one hour.”

The Light of the Reformation Continues to Burn

Luther stood on the shoulders of the “pre-reformers,” like Hus and Wycliffe, and recaptured a love for God’s word. Our responsibility is to continue what Luther started. It was in the spring of 1521 that Luther appeared at the diet of Worms to answer for his teaching. With his life hanging in the balance Luther knew the damage that a retraction on his part would cause. Would he be willing to sacrifice his own life for a re-capturing of the bible? The answer is yes. History is somewhat vague on Luther’s exact reply when asked to recant, but it went something like this:

“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, God help me. Amen.”

Luther stood on God’s Word and persevered in the faith. Today we must stand on the shoulders of Luther, and the great reformers. Thanks to Luther we are not enslaved by “the authority of the popes and councils.” Thanks to the faithful preaching of John Calvin we have his commentaries on almost the entire bible to learn from. Thanks to William Tyndale, who gave his life for Christ, we have God’s Word in English. There are so many men who sacrificed, fought, labored, and even died so that we might stand on their shoulders. It is my intention, God willing, to honor these men by honoring God, by holding firm the doctrines of Grace, and by loving the bible. Let us never forget the cries of the reformation:

sola fide: faith alone
sola scriptura: Scripture alone
solus Christus: Christ alone
sola gratia: Grace alone
soli deo gloria: To the Glory of God alone

Let me try my own rendition of Luther’s proclamation at Worms:

“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason I will continue to fight for the biblical doctrines re-discovered in the Reformation – I will not forget what these giants in the faith did for the Church, and the opportunity they gave me to study God’s Word – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not forget the Reformation for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand on the shoulders of the Reformers, God help me. Amen.”

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Book Review: The Shepherd Leader

Timothy Witmer.  The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church.  Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010.

The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church by Timothy Witmer is one of the best books that you will read on the topic of shepherding.  The best way that I know how to describe the book is that it is a modern day version of Charles Jefferson’s The Minister as Shepherd—and that is a high compliment.  The book is written to address what Witmer refers to as the “a shepherding crisis, or should I say a failure to shepherd.” (1)  As Witmer explained and addressed this failure to shepherd I realized that this is not only a problem for the church at large.  It is a problem for my church.  It is a problem for me!  “The simple thesis of this book is, ‘The fundamental responsibility of church leaders is to shepherd God’s flock.” (2)  Time and time again Witmer comes back to this thesis by calling pastors to fulfill their duties.  As a pastor I was stretched, challenged, and convicted by the constant call for pastors to shepherd the flock of God.

Witmer does an excellent job of painting a biblical picture of what a shepherd should look like.  He does an equally excellent job of practically applying that in today’s church.  Personally, one of the most helpful aspects of this book was Witmer’s explanation of the difference between “Macro Shepherding” and “Micro Shepherding.”

Macro-shepherding refers to those important leadership functions that relate to the entire church.  It has in view the elder’s responsibility to provide “oversight” of the flock as a whole.  Its concern is to address the corporate concerns of the congregation.  These are important decision-making, vision-casting, and administrative functions that the elders must carry out for the health of the flock. (103)

Micro-shepherding, on the other hand, refers to the personal ministry of the elders among the sheep.  It has in view the oversight of particular sheep for whom they have been given responsibility. (103)

These categories are helpful because both are necessary, and because it is easy to neglect one of these two areas of shepherding and fool yourself into thinking you are doing your job.

The only caution that I would add is the frequent distinction Witmer makes between “ruling elders” and “teaching elders.”  To his credit, Witmer is quick to emphasize that all elders must do the work of shepherding.  However, I would argue that the two categories of elder are not the most biblical way to understand the office of elder.

Has God Disappeared from Christian Worship?

Here’s a fun exercise for you.  Turn on the local Christian radio station that plays music all the time for 30 min.  Try to keep track of all the times that you hear the term “worship” and think about how this term is usually employed.  Now ask yourself, is God at the center of our worship?

When God is the object of our worship then bringing Him the glory and praise He deserve is the end goal.  All too  often this is not the purpose of our gathered worship.  We are more interested in how our worship makes us feel or the emotions that are stirred up by songs being played.  In other words, God is no longer the object.  It’s no longer a question of whether or not God has been honored with a right heart.  Instead, worship has become about the “worshipper.” Or, more accurately, we’ve become the object of our own worship (again).

It is this erosion of Soli Deo Gloria (To the Glory of God Alone) that the Cambridge Declaration addressed with these words:

Wherever in the church biblical authority has been lost, Christ has been displaced, the gospel has been distorted, or faith has been perverted, it has always been for one reason: our interests have displaced God’s and we are doing his work in our way. The loss of God’s centrality in the life of today’s church is common and lamentable. It is this loss that allows us to transform worship into entertainment, gospel preaching into marketing, believing into technique, being good into feeling good about ourselves, and faithfulness into being successful. As a result, God, Christ and the Bible have come to mean too little to us and rest too inconsequentially upon us.

God does not exist to satisfy human ambitions, cravings, the appetite for consumption, or our own private spiritual interests. We must focus on God in our worship, rather than the satisfaction of our personal needs. God is sovereign in worship; we are not. Our concern must be for God’s kingdom, not our own empires, popularity or success.

Ok, now turn off the radio.  Think about your own conception of worship.  Who are you worshiping? Who’s Kingdom are you worried about?

We’ve been Duped (pt. 3)

As we look around at the resurgence of reformed theology and see where the movement is being taken, we need to decide what we are going to do.  We can go with the flow.  We can allow the segment of our camp engaging in what I would call reckless contextualization to set the pace for reformed theology.  That would be pretty easy to do.  These guys hold to a reformed soteriology (doctrine of salvation), and they preach true Gospel.  It would be easy to bite our tongues (no pun intended) and just let some things slide since we are all in the same camp.  We could do that, but we shouldn’t.  If we are going to call ourselves reformed then we need to make sure that we never stop reforming.  If there are segments of our camp that are practicing a philosophy of ministry inconsistent with the doctrines we hold, then we need to speak up.

But be forewarned.  If you “rock the boat” of the reformed resurgence then you will be labeled.  You with either be a “watch-blogger” or a “angry fundamentalist.”  Basically, a “watch-blogger” is someone who is young and questions prominent reformed pastors.  An “angry fundamentalist” is someone who is older and criticizes prominent reformed pastors.  The perfect example was the reaction to John MacArthur’s recent words to our group.  Rather than deal with the substance of MacArthur’s words what happened?  Most people simply shouted him down as an angry fundamentalist who was finally showing his true colors.  That is such a same, not because we had to agree with everything he said, but because we should’ve listened.  (Plus, if you go back in history a little bit you’ll find out that some of the most vocal opponents MacArthur has ever had were fundamentalist.)

Carl Trueman recently made a similar point when he made several observations about how prominent leaders deal with criticism:

the practice of attack being the best form of defence.  By characterising criticism in advance as driven by hate or sectarianism, they effectively make it impossible, or at least very difficult, for anyone to raise any concerns.  They also engage in remarkable feats of clairvoyance concerning the future motivation of anyone not convinced by their arguments or actions.

 

This is true, and it is what we will face.  But we shouldn’t care.  I don’t like either of those terms and would prefer to have neither attached to me or my ministry.  But guess what, it shouldn’t matter what people call us.  We can’t let others dictate our actions by re-defining our concerns as illegitimate angry rants.  We need to have the same mentality that Machen had.  He was fighting the Liberals with their Social Gospel (which is going to make a come back very soon) and devaluing of the Word (which is coming back under the guise of charismatic theology).  He didn’t have time to worry about labels.  In fact, here is what he said

Do you suppose that I do regret my being called by a term that I greatly dislike, a “Fundamentalist”? Most certainly I do. But in the presence of a great common foe, I have little time to be attacking my brethren who stand with me in defense of the Word of God.

We can’t let a fear of man or a fear of being a fundamentalist prevent us from holding fast not only to the doctrines of reformed theology, but the practices of reformed theology as well.

We have to speak the truth in love.  If we do this then we will not have to concern ourselves will the labels that are attached to our criticism.

We’ve Been Duped (pt. 2)

I think that I have made it pretty clear that there are some not so altruistic motives that have been driving certain elements of the recent resurgence of Reformed theology.  Basically, as a group of reformed Christians we need to move forward very carefully and take note of the fact that we have now become a very powerful demographic in the “Evangelical Industry.”  You can quibble with me over the “how” & the “who”  but I am pretty confident in the fact that this is a reality we must deal with.

I’m not sure, however, that this is the biggest danger for the reformed world.  I think that there are two very subtle dangers that we need to be on the look out for–and may have already arrived.

1. The Danger of Trading Gospel Clarity for Influence

The first danger that we need to be aware of is the danger of trading Gospel clarity for influence.

What is this danger?

This is the idea that we can make “compromises” on who we associate with for the sake of influencing more people with our teaching.  On the surface it does not seem like a danger or a mistake.  I mean… Come on… Is it really that bad to associate with people who do not hold to the same doctrine as long as we can articulate the Gospel together?  In most cases the simple answer is a yes.  When we associate with someone, invite them to our conferences, or sit on panels with them in most case we are giving a tacit approval of their ministry.   In most cases, when key doctrines are at stake, we are sacrificing Gospel Clarity in the name of influencing more people.

Why is  it dangerous?

First of all, the idea that we can make compromises on who we include in our “camp” and it won’t affect the clarity of our Gospel is just silly.  Come on guys!  This is part of the reason that we were drawn to reformed theology in the first place.  We were tired of the pragmatism of our old churches that would try almost anything in the name of “influence.”  You’ve been there.  Was the clarity of the Gospel affected? Definitely.  Just look at history.  The Ecumenical movement promised that if we just “overlooked” some minor doctrinal differences then we would see an explosion of evangelistic effectiveness.  If we just let Catholics, and Liberals, and anyone else come to our revivals then we can fill up football stadiums with people ready to follow Jesus…. and then be sent to Catholic church for further discipleship!  This is what we were supposed to be leaving.

Here is another reason this is dangerous, it betrays the theology we claim to love.  We are Calvinist!  Gospel Clarity, or to put it another way, faithfulness is our goal.  We don’t keep “conversion stats”, we don’t (READ SHOULDN’T) judge a pastor based on the size of his church.  These are all things that we believe God is in control of!  You know the whole election thing that we love so much… How is that we are going to call ourselves Calvinist, but then be willing to try any trick to reach more people.  Isn’t that the Arminian Pragmatism we hate?  Shouldn’t we, to use the words of wise pastor, “be worried about the depth of our ministry and let God take care of the breadth.”

When will it get here?

This is danger, I’m sorry to say, has already arrived.  You want proof.  Ok, no problem.  Prominent professing reformed pastors have invited a man who does not believe in the historic articulation of the Trinity and who preaches the rankest version of the prosperity Gospel  to be part of  “conversations about the most Christ honoring ways of building a church.”  Much has been written on the problem with this so I don’t have to add much.  Except to ask, why?  Why was T.D. Jakes invited? The answer is “influence.”  He’s a big name and brings lots of listeners.  To some that’s not a bad thing.  I’ve heard people say that it is because these pastors might be able to influence Jake.  I’ve heard others say that it is because these pastor might now have the opportunity to influence the people who follow Jakes.  The only thing that I have not heard any of the proponents mention is that it might influence us!  Thankfully faithful pastors have stood up to say that very thing.  (One wonders, though, why Mark Dever’s voice has not been heard on the matter since he is slated to be a participant.)

We are in the process of trading gospel clarity for influence.  I hope you see this danger.  But, be warned that if you stand up to this danger you are going to be ostracized as a “watch blogger,” or worse… A Fundamentalist!!  Really, this is the second subtle danger that I think is attack our camp.  Not that we would be called names, but that we would care.  I hope to deal with this in my next post.