Archive for the ‘Reformed Theology’ Category

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.  3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,  4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot,  8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” – Romans 8:1-9



500 years ago this week was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. To be exact, 500 years ago on Oct 31, 1517.  On that day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg Germany, hoping to inspire reform in the Catholic Church, but instead his words inspired thousands of people to join in the protest, and these people became known as ‘protest-ents’ or ‘Protestants’.

This 500th anniversary, then, is not so much something to celebrate as it is to remember. We don’t celebrate division in the church, because we believe in one God and one Lord Jesus Christ and one eternal destiny for all who love God. There is no division in Jesus.

So Reformation Day for us is kind of like Memorial Day.  On Memorial Day we don’t celebrate war because war is not a thing to celebrate; but we honor those who served, and especially we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could live in freedom.

In the same way, when we remember the Reformation, we honor those men and women who stood up for God, who stood up for truth and justice, who stood up for God’s word, and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could know God.

So it is fitting to remember the events that happened 500 years ago.

By the time Luther was born, the church in Rome had held practically unquestioned power over the churches in Western Europe for nearly 1000 years.  (Eastern Europe and Asia were led by the Orthodox Church, and Africa by the Coptic Church, but neither of these had much influence in western Europe.) And, as often happens, power corrupts.

Luther was a Catholic monk and priest who wanted to reform the Roman Catholic church from the inside.  At the same time there were many other monks, nuns, and religious scholars who loved God and studied the scriptures, and as they studied – and as they did their best to bring their lives into line with God’s will as they understood it – the more they ran into difficulty with Rome.

The issue that finally sparked the Reformation, at least in the public eye, was the issue of selling indulgences.  (Like most issues, even today, there’s what’s happening in the public eye and then there’s what’s really happening behind the scenes. The issue in the public eye was selling indulgences.)  Indulgences were – and to some extent still are in the Catholic Church – ways “to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins” after one dies. This has nothing to do with salvation. In the teaching of the Catholic Church, even a person who is saved still needs to be cleansed (or “purged”) of their sins before entering heaven.  So a person passes through purge-atory or purgatory. And indulgences were meant to reduce the amount of time spent in purgatory. In our day indulgences can be earned by (for example) making a pilgrimage to a holy place, or by performing good works; but in Luther’s day indulgences were for sale and the money was used for things like repairing the Sistine Chapel or furnishing the Pope’s living quarters.

Martin Luther first became aware of this when he traveled to Rome in 1510 on behalf of his monastery.  At that time Luther was a young and idealistic monk, and he couldn’t wait to see the Holy City with his own eyes.  When he arrived, he fell to his knees and exclaimed, “Hail to thee, holy Rome! Thrice holy for the blood of the martyrs shed here!” – referring to Peter and Paul, who had been martyred in Rome.

But what Luther discovered in the church in Rome shocked and disillusioned him. He witnessed gluttony, and gambling, and any number of vices, and very little concern for the poor.  Later on Luther described his visit this way – he wrote: “The Church of Rome … has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death and hell…”

And indeed history tells us the Catholic church was in deep trouble at this point in time. There were many people inside the church at that time trying to work for reform; Luther was by far not the only one.

But Luther returned home to Germany in a spiritual dilemma. The question he was asking himself was not ‘how can I be a part of this corrupt organization?’ – in those days a person didn’t simply walk away from the Roman Catholic church – there was nowhere else to go. But Luther’s dilemma was this: how can any person be good enough for God?  When Luther saw sin in others, he was humble enough to see it in himself as well.  And he knew God’s standards were impossible for any human being to meet.

Luther wrote:

My situation was that, although [I was] an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would [satisfy] (assuage) [God]. Therefore I did not love a just, angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him.

 In other words, Luther was angry at God for demanding the impossible.

But when Luther read Romans 1:17 it stuck in his mind. In that verse Paul writes: “In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’”

Luther wrote:

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression “the righteousness of God,” because I took it to mean… that righteousness whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. […]

Let me step aside here for a second, because Luther’s interpretation, Luther’s understanding – that the “righteousness of God” had to do with God justly punishing the unrighteous sinner – was the common understanding of God’s righteousness in those days.  This was the definition taught by Thomas Aquinas and other leading theologians for 400 years before Luther was born. Righteousness by grace through faith had been almost completely lost, and it had been replaced by church traditions like making pilgrimages or buying indulgences.  It calls to mind the words of Jesus when he said to the Pharisees, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.” (Matt 15:6)

As a result Luther took no comfort in the very words that Paul had written to comfort imperfect people.

Luther continues in his writing:

Yet I clung to Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.  Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that “the just shall live by faith.” Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before “the righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…”

It is my prayer for all of us, myself included, that we will hold onto God with the tenacity that Martin Luther did, and never let go.  Because all of us, at one time or another, will have issues with God, or with the scriptures, or questions we can’t find answers to.  I pray we will keep on holding onto God and keep on digging for answers, and not give up, until (as it did for Luther) doubt becomes certainty and faith becomes sight.

Martin Luther later wrote that this moment of revelation was the true beginning of the Reformation; the ‘real story behind the scenes’. This was the moment when Luther took God at God’s word, and it’s what made all the difference.

With his new understanding of grace and faith, the selling of indulgences – which before had looked like a simple injustice – now is understood as actually blocking people’s access to God’s forgiveness.  Luther could no longer remain silent.

So he brought the issue to the church’s attention on October 31, 1517.  And the church would not tolerate what it saw as heresy and mutiny. Luther was excommunicated and probably would have been martyred if he had not been kidnapped by his friends and carted off to an old castle.  While in hiding, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German (which was also not permitted by the church, because Latin was the only language permitted in the church). But Luther believed the people should be able to read the scriptures in their own language, and so he made the translation.

Luther survived all the death threats and legal actions that were taken against him, but not everyone who supported him did.  In 1523, two years after Luther’s “kidnapping”, the first Lutheran martyrs were burned at the stake. Two years after that, Luther was visited by the English scholar Tyndale, who (at Luther’s encouragement) published the first English translation of the New Testament. Tyndale paid for it with his life: he was hung and then burned at the stake.

I think it’s important to remember, whenever we pick up our Bibles, that people have given their lives so we could have this.  Just like we give thanks for those who have died for our freedoms, even more so we give thanks for those who died so God’s word and God’s promise of eternal life could be ours.

So in the coming week as we think about the Reformation:

  • When you have a moment look over the Reformation Timeline. There was a lot happening in the world during Martin Luther’s lifetime, and this helps make sense of the events that were happening during the Reformation.
  • The Reformation reminds us God takes sin seriously – as true today as back in Luther’s day. Luther was on the mark with the questions he was asking. He understood what the scriptures were saying.  God does require righteousness, and the requirement is  But rather than leading us to despair, scripture leads us to…
  • … God’s gift of righteousness by grace through faith. Two hundred years later, give or take a few decades, John Wesley was as firm and clear about this as Luther was. Wesley wrote:“All the blessings God has bestowed upon men and women are of his grace, his free, undeserved favor. We have no claim to the least of His mercies.

    “It was… grace that “formed [people] out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into [them] living souls,” and stamped on [those souls] the image of God. The same free grace continues to us… And whatever righteousness may be found in us… is also the gift of God.

    Wesley continues: “With what then can we atone for even the least of our sins? With our works? Even if our works are many and holy, they are not our own, but God’s. Therefore, having nothing — neither righteousness nor works… our mouths are (utterly) stopped before God. If, then, we find favor with God, it is “grace upon grace!” “Christian faith is a full reliance on the blood of Christ; it is a trust in the merits of His life, death, and resurrection.” “By grace you have been saved through faith.”

Wesley understood where Luther was coming from.  And in the 500 years since Luther, the message hasn’t changed, and the faith hasn’t changed, and God’s grace and mercy haven’t changed.  Our job is to be true to the faith we have received, from the saints who have gone before us, and pass it on to the people we know and to the next generation.

With thanks to God for His great grace and mercy, AMEN.



Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 10/29/17



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This week marks the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  500 years ago on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the local church in Wittenburg, in hopes of inspiring reform in the Catholic Church. Instead he inspired the Protestant movement.

As with all events in history, context is critical in understanding the events that were unfolding, and the century Luther lived in was stunning in its creativity and genius. With this in mind I put together a very basic timeline of events in and around the Protestant Reformation, to give some background to Luther’s story. Enjoy.


Reformation Timeline

1452 – Leonardo daVinci born

1455 – Gutenberg invents the movable-type printing press. Gutenberg Bible printed.

1473 – Copernicus born

1473 – Michelangelo born

1481 – Spanish Inquisition begins

1483 – Martin Luther born

1492 – Columbus sails to the New World, discovers corn

1494 – earliest record of Scots making whiskey

1495 – daVinci begins The Last Supper

1496 – Michelangelo begins the Pieta

1502 – Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, founds the University of Wittenburg

1505 – Luther becomes an Augustinian monk

1507 – Luther ordained priest, celebrates first mass

1508 – Luther appointed to teach at the University of Wittenburg

1509 – John Calvin, founder of Presbyterianism, is born

1509 – Henry VIII becomes King of England

1510 – Luther walks to Rome (approx 1000 miles) on a pilgrimage for his order (the Augustinians). He arrives with high hopes, but is “shocked by the lack of morality and piety of the local clergy and by the luxurious lifestyle of the Pope Leo X”

1513 – Luther’s “Tower Experience”: the meaning of Romans 1 (salvation by grace through faith) dawns on Luther’s heart and mind. For Luther this is the moment when the Protestant Reformation begins.

1517 – Pope Leo grants indulgences for rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica

October 31, 1517 – Luther nails 95 Theses to Castle Church door in Wittenburg protesting indulgences

1518 – Luther is charged with heresy in Rome, defends himself in Augsburg using Scripture rather than church doctrine. He is protected by Frederick the Wise.

1521 – Luther is excommunicated. He appears before the Diet of Worms. On his way home, Luther is “kidnapped” by friends and taken to Wartburg Castle and placed in hiding. He spends the next 10 weeks translating the New Testament from Greek into German.

1522 – Luther’s translation of the New Testament is published

1522 – Zwingli begins reformation in Switzerland

1523 – First Lutheran martyrs, Heinrich Voes and John Esch, burned at stake in Antwerp

1525 – Frederick the Wise dies; Luther marries the former nun Katherina von Bora

1525 – Tyndale visits Luther from England; under Luther’s influence the English translation of the New Testament is published and smuggled into England. Owning a Tyndale Bible in England carries a death sentence. Tyndale is declared a heretic, strangled to death and burned at the stake.

1527 – The Plague strikes Wittenburg. Luther’s home becomes a hospital. Luther writes the hymn A Mighty Fortress

1530 – Augsburg Confession presented to Charles V at Diet of Augsburg

1533 – Henry VIII of England is excommunicated

1534 – Luther’s complete German Bible is published.

1536 – Henry VIII allows English Bible to be published in England

1539 – Catholic Counter-Reformation begins

1546 – Luther passes, age 63

1555 – the “Peace of Augsburg” gives the reigning prince of a country the right to determine the religion of his subjects (authors of this Peace hope to put an end to religion-based violence. Some days it works better than others.)  Reformation continues for the next hundred years or so.


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This blog post — Shifting Evangelicalism — and the comments following it put into words a trend I have been sensing in the world of Evangelicalism for the past couple decades.  The rise of hard-line-ism and attempts to find reasons to exclude various sub-sets of believers from the church is troubling if not un-Scriptural.

Call me old-fashioned but I can’t let go the vision I caught in my younger years of what the author calls “Big-Tent Evangelicalism”, where we agree on the authority of Scripture and allow for differences in understanding.   The ‘new Evangelicalism’ seems to want to force all believers into the same mold and call it ‘unity’.  Forget about ‘liberty’ and ‘charity’.

If Jesus is true then we need to find ways to bring people INTO the kingdom, not ways to keep them out.  And we shouldn’t be wasting time trying to figure out (as if we had the right to) who’s going to make it into heaven and who isn’t.

Thanks to author Scot McKnight for his insights and to Mark for posting the article to FB.

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I picked up a copy of Michael Babcock’s UnChristian America on a recommendation from a friend.  I’ve been meaning to review it for some time and was finally nudged into action by this conversation.

Author Michael Babcock is a professor of humanities at Liberty University in Lynchburg VA, the school founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell and funded in large part by Tim LaHaye of the Left Behind series of books.  Where it comes to the Religious Right and American politics, Babcock is an insider speaking from personal experience.

This book is a must-read for evangelical Christians.  As Babcock says in the dedication, “May you always seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.”

The book is divided into two sections, Losing the Battle and Winning the War, and is prefaced by an introduction describing the author’s spiritual journey.  Babcock begins his arguments with these concepts:

“We forget that Jesus turned to fishermen, not politicians, when He began His ministry; we forget that He empowered the twelve disciples with the Holy Spirit, not political charisma, to build His church.”

“The real enemy we face has never been godless Communism, the gay lobby, the abortion industry, or the Hollywood elite.  The real enemy is the same one Jesus confronted two thousand years ago: the materialistic values of this world system. […] The central miscalculation of the Religious Right has been its failure to recognize the real nature of the battle.”

“From the catacombs of ancient Rome to the cities of modern America, living for Christ has always meant the same thing: commitment and self-sacrifice, dying to self and dying to the world.  By absorbing the values of the larger culture, evangelicals have neglected their responsibility… to present a relentless critique of our fallen world.”

In Part One of the book, Babcock demonstrates how the Religious Right grew directly out of the racial prejudice of the Deep South in the 1950s, anger at the removal of school prayer in the early 1960s, and backlash against the women’s movement of the late 1960s.  He quotes George Andrews, congressman from Alabama, who said of the 1962 Supreme Court decision removing prayer from schools, “They put the Negroes in the school, and now they’ve driven God out.”  Babcock comments, “By linking these two matters so crudely, Congressman Andrews was putting his finger on the real issue that reverberated throughout the South…”

Babcock goes on to detail “political themes… emerging… in strange ways” such as from Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, which Babcock describes as “breezily written and thinly documented” and which provided a “blueprint for a crude evangelical foreign policy” in the 1970s, giving rise to the Christian Zionist movement.

Babcock then traces the rise of the Moral Majority movement and Liberty Foundation of the 1980s and the Christian Coalition of the 1990s, exposing dirty back-room deals and moral compromises made for the sake of political power.   He also correctly identifies Ralph Reed, “political whiz kid” and former golden boy of the Christian Coalition (until he was discredited for doing business with a convicted felon), as the impetus behind the ‘take back America for God’ movement.   “Reed was a professional operative, not an evangelist,” Babcock writes, and adds Reed once likened his own political tactics to “those of a Turkish assassin”.

After Reed was publicly discredited, director of the Family Research Council Gary Bauer along with Focus on the Family filled the power vacancy created by Reed’s departure.  By this point, Babcock writes, “the distinction between what is “Christian” and what is “American” has become hopelessly blurred.”

In the next chapter Babcock takes on the question of whether America is really a “nation under God” and argues that no nation can claim to be “God’s country” except ancient Israel.  He argues that those who believe America was founded as a Christian nation “fail to distinguish between cultural Christianity and biblical Christianity.”  He points out that Thomas Jefferson was “conveniently selective about which doctrines of Jesus he included in his own anti-supernaturalist edition of the Bible” and “was deeply conflicted about the competing claims of revealed religion and the dictates of reason.”  Bottom line, “the Founding Fathers… certainly did not see themselves founding a theocratic state.”  Babcock then goes on to trace various movements in American history, showing both religious and humanistic influences.  Some important conclusions he draws include:

“When Christians on either end of the political spectrum redefine the church as a voting bloc instead of Christ’s very body, then we have succumbed to a false wind of doctrine.”

“The church’s mission is not to transform a changing culture but to bear witness to the unchanging truth of God.  The church’s mission is not to change the world by using the world’s tools.  We have been given spiritual tools…  because our battle is not “against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age.” (Eph. 6:12)”

“Something is terribly wrong if the world can’t see the ‘old rugged cross’ because we’ve surrounded it with white picket fences and American flags.  Nothing should obscure the Cross.”

“Whatever else the world may think of us, they should hear the love of Christ in our words and see it demonstrated in the way we treat others.”

“Humanism is the religion of the modern age, and the seeds of this humanism were planted in the New World when the shining city was chartered.  America was never ours to lose.”

In Winning the War, Babcock tells the story of how, after his disillusionment with the Religious Right, he stumbled into a worship service led by a fellowship of Calvary Chapel.  He writes: “No flashy illustrations. No politics. No legalism. No light shows. Just the Word of God in all its simple eloquence.  Something awakened inside me that I thought had been lost for good.  My will broke beneath the gentle onslaught of God’s grace…”

Babcock writes, “The eternal truths of God never expire.  Christians today face no new challenges, no new battles, and no new issues. ”  He then outlines principles on which to build a more Christ-like future:

“Acknowledge God’s sovereignty over the political realm.”

“Submit ourselves to the authority of earthly rulers.”

“Recognize the importance God places on honor and respect. […] The belligerent tone of much conservative commentary is inconsistent with the ethic of the gospel…”

Know that “God’s standard remains fully in effect even though society may change.  God allows no escape clause or exceptions for our personal preferences and political platforms.”

“Our civic responsibilities are always defined by godly living.”

Babcock concludes his book with “A Simple Call to Virtue” saying that Christians need to regain the message and importance of the Sermon on the Mount.  He finds that Jesus’ message has been nearly buried in conservative churches by “a modified form of dispensational interpretation… ultra-dispensationalism can obscure the fact that a consistent God lies behind the whole sweep of Scripture.  From beginning to end, He is a God of holiness, mercy, love, and forgiveness. […] The Scofield Reference Bible… divided Scripture into “seven dispensations” and relegated the Sermon on the Mount to the future millennial reign of Christ.”  Babcock soundly rejects Scofield’s interpretation and the later amplifications of Arno Gaebelein, refuting them with quotations from Paul.

Babcock adds, “it really matters that evangelicals have been so deaf to the great Sermon Jesus preached. […] Our casual dismissal of the Sermon on the Mount explains a lot of things that are painful to admit, such as nationalistic and militaristic impulses right now, crude addiction to prosperity and material success right now, and comfort with law and religiosity right now.  Jesus rejected the power paradigms of this world and issued instead a simple call to virtue.”

Recommended reading.

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This past week a stack of report booklets from this year’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) appeared on a table in the church where I work, so I picked up a copy.  I was deeply troubled to read on the first page:

“the 218th General Assembly was a typical blend of the bold and the cautious as it:

“>  Approved a proposed amendment to delete G-60106b — the “fidelity and chastity” standards for church officers — but rejected a proposal to change the church’s definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two people”…”

In other words, the most recent Presbyterian General Assembly has said it’s OK for ordained people — ministers, elders, and deacons — to have sex within or outside the bounds of marriage, whether they’re married or not, with whomever they like, if they feel the spirit is leading them to do it; but homosexuals aren’t allowed to get married.

I can’t help asking: where exactly is the “boldness” here?  Or “caution” for that matter?  It sounds to me like just more of the same double-standard weasel-words we in the pews have come to expect from church hierarchies. If it’s OK for people in ordained positions to have sex with anyone they want, what difference does it make whether they’re married or not?

Whatever happened to God’s call to His people to be countercultural?  “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  Whatever happened to God’s call to holiness, and righteousness, and to seeing life as more than just the body?

Scripture’s teaching on sexuality — both Old Testament and New — is that sex is reserved for monogamous heterosexual marriage.  Apart from this, no matter what your preferences are, God’s answer is NO.

The problem is no one is able to live up to God’s standard.  No one.  Even the rare individuals who manage to remain pure until and throughout marriage have impurities in their hearts.  Re-writing church rules to match our imperfections does nothing other than create a feeling of self-righteousness among people who need to repent.

I take that back: re-writing church rules accomplishes one other thing.  It makes it impossible for the people in the pews to complain if one of their ministers has an affair with a spouse or an over-18 child.  The church says it’s OK so it must be OK.  There won’t be any discipline because in the eyes of the church no harm was done.

More and more I see why so many people feel it’s time to close the doors of the mainline Protestant churches and write “Ichabod” (“the glory of the Lord has departed”) across them.  Is there any other choice? — that’s a topic for another post.  For now I’ll just say, sadly, I expect to see mass departures from the Presbyterian Church USA over the next 5-10 years as more and more people realize they’ve been betrayed by their leadership.

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Found over on the finitum non capax infiniti blog… a beautiful article on how faith responds at times in life when it seems like injustice has the upper hand.  Why does God let bad things happen?  Why doesn’t He step in and put a stop to the evil and wrong?

Read the article here and see what you think.

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“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” — Jesus
(Matt. 10:37-39)

From the “Says who?” department: In order to be a good Christian you must love America and believe Jesus wants you to vote Conservative. In order to be a good Christian you must believe America is the greatest nation on earth, the nation after which all other nations should model themselves. In order to be a good Christian you must support the US military and agree with America’s overseas policies. In order to be a good Christian you must agree having the words “In God We Trust” printed on our money demonstrates America is a Christian nation.

Says who???

Don’t get me wrong. I love my country. I deeply admire the young men and women whose courage and sense of duty leads them to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of their fellow citizens. I honor their sacrifices.

What I’m asking is this: When did it become appropriate to see love of country as being equal to or greater than love of God? (more…)

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