My wife called on the phone last week to see how I was doing. “I want to come home,” I whimpered. She was at home, but I was over two hundred miles away in an empty Indiana house by myself. Around me wafted the smell of fresh paint, along with what seemed like miles of green painters’ tape and carefully placed drop clothes.Read More
Years ago I read a famous singer’s autobiography. It was impressive, like having a conversation with a good-natured, sensible next door neighbor. I’m sure that a lot of what I read was true, but, like many autobiographies, it was selective. Those who followed his life know that it was also messier than the book might lead us to believe.Read More
There’s a common Christian saying that goes something like this:“If God seems distant, guess who moved?” Have you heard this one? It’s essentially saying: “When you don’t feel God’s presence, it’s your own fault. Straighten up.” In other words, it’s a rebuke.Read More
It’s been 500 years, since the hammer hit its final blow and the document lay impaled on the church door trembling in the wind. Martin Luther posted his 95 theses and the world has never been the same since. It’s been on my mind especially since I’m almost finished reading a book called Protestants – THE FAITH THAT MADE THE MODERN WORLD, by Alec Ryrie, a professor of the history of Christianity at Durham University. It’s a masterful book which traces the impact of the Reformation on our world from Luther’s time up to the present. Professor Ryrie has obviously done his homework well.
Yet I come away from this scholarly work with profoundly mixed feelings. On the one hand, I believe a reformation was needed. The Church had lost its way, badly needing reform. I think that even many modern Roman Catholics would agree with this, at least in some areas. Martin Luther, as R.C. Sproul has pointed out, was seeking reformation not revolution. He hadn’t wanted to abandon the church and start a new movement. He’d simply wanted to bring it back to holiness and to its biblical roots. In the end, however, the changes were too radical, and Protestantism became its own entity. Many of the changes were positive and God-honoring. I’ve benefitted, for instance, from truths like sola scriptura (only Scripture) and sola gratia (only by grace). Scripture should be the final authority, not human leaders, and salvation is by grace alone, not by works (aren’t you glad about that?). For these reasons, and others, I’m grateful for the Reformation.
My mixed feelings come from another direction. While the Reformation did bring spiritual freedom and advance to the Church, it also created a great deal of chaos. There was, of course, enormous conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics. But it didn’t stop there. Like a mirror hit with a hammer, the Protestants themselves, soon cracked and split in many different directions. Once each person was freed to follow his conscience, based on God’s personal leading and His Word, it turned out that everyone didn’t agree with each other. Soon there were Lutherans, Calvinists, Arminians, Anabaptists, Moravians, and many, many more. Each sect thought it had the most accurate biblical interpretation and practices. And because the government and church were often intertwined, these differences sometimes resulted in bloodshed and even wars. Heretics were tortured, executed and sometimes burned at the stake. If you want details, read the book. You’ll find hundreds of them. Lots of ugliness in the name of Jesus Christ.
Even today, when Christians have mostly separated church and state, and have achieved greater religious tolerance, the Protestant Church is still deeply divided. Reading this book saddened and humbled me. This is the “Reformation” prompted and led by the Spirit of the Living God? And even if we go back to the “good old days”, in biblical times with Israel and then the New Testament church, amidst the flowering beauty of holiness we still find our share of thorns. God’s people have often been an embarrassment to Him. I include myself in that number, though I deeply desire to be like Jesus.
I have no wish today to rain on the Reformation Parade. Much good has come from it. It was needed. There’s much to celebrate. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from its downside as well. Here, in my opinion, are a few of them.
Lessons to be learned from the Reformation’s problems
1. The government and the Church make uneasy partners
I realize that the clause “separation of church and state” has been misinterpreted at times in the United States, in ways which have impinged upon the Church’s rights. That’s unfortunate and wrong. But to equate the government with a particular denomination or religious group is also an invitation to disaster. Ancient Israel was a theocracy, a combination, but the New Testament church never attempted this. The government and the Church each have different loyalties and roles and while they can assist each other, each needs freedom in their own domains. This leads to the next lesson:
2. Religious freedom is a God-given right to be guarded
From the Garden of Eden onwards, God has given people freedom to choose Him or not to choose Him. In the end, He is the one who will judge each of us for our spiritual choices. While there are certainly limits as to what we can do in the name of religious freedom (ISIS being a prime example of abuse of that privilege), in the end, coercing someone to be a Protestant, Catholic, Methodist, or whatever is not only going too far, it flat-out doesn’t work. Even Jesus didn’t force people to believe in Him.
3. Sin often masquerades in religious garb
Just because someone claims their action is “Christian” doesn’t mean it is. Religion is one of Satan’s favorite tools. Think of how many people were slaughtered in the Middle ages in the name of Christ. Or, in our day, how often churches divide over power plays presented as theological issues. This, is perhaps one of the meanings of the commandment which says, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.” Even good theology does not excuse bad actions.
4. God can use imperfect saints
While sin is never excusable, if God could only use perfect people, the church would be a discarded tool. Martin Luther was anti-Semitic. John Calvin had a heretic, Servetus, burned at the stake. Jonathan Edwards owned slaves. Even in biblical times, God’s saints had feet of clay – King David, a “man after God’s own heart” also committed adultery and murder. Peter denied Jesus three times. These are all actions we’d condemn today, though some of these, to be fair, were seen as less objectionable in their time than we see them today. The point is, anyway, that God has always used imperfect people while accomplishing His will. That would include us.
5. God, for some reason, allows for, and uses religious diversity
While there are certainly clear limits as to what can be called “biblical truth”, there still seems to be quite a bit of leeway for diversity, both in interpretation and practice. God can, and has used a variety of approaches to the Christian faith. Who’s to say that the Baptists are more Christian than the Lutherans, or the Reformed Church more Christian than the Pentecostals? There are people afire for God in many denominations. In the Reformation, God used even opposing factions to bring people to the same salvation. The “great multitude which no man can number” standing before the throne in Revelation 7:9, will be composed of every color and theological stripe.
6. In the end, it’s God, not us, who makes it all work
The Reformation was a mixture of good and bad, beautiful and ugly, but, in the end, God used His imperfect tools to accomplish His purposes. This is no excuse for sin, or mediocrity, but it’s also a comfort for those of us who know that we and our fellow saints are far from perfect. Martin Luther, though imperfect, sought to be faithful, and God used him to help launch a moment which has brought millions into the Kingdom and still impacts our world today. He will use you and I too if we’ll take His hand and stay by His side.
I grew up with a lot of “Jesus makes life happier and easier” songs (remember “I’ve got happiness all the time…since I found the Lord?”). So those were my expectations. Is that true, though? Does spiritual maturity bring increasing exhilaration and ease?Read More
As Bill started to quote a Bible verse to make his point, Betty cut him short. “Everyone interprets the Bible differently,” she said. Her implication? Since we all come to the Bible from different perspectives, there can be no absolute certainty about biblical teaching.Read More
“Post-modernism” is a somewhat negative word in conservative Christian circles. The term itself can be confusing, since it’s used in a variety of ways. One of those connotations, one which should concern believers, is the philosophy that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that we call “truth” is relative to each person. You can have your truth and I can have mine and it doesn’t matter if our “truths” contradict each other as long as they work for us as individuals – “You’re a Christian? Glad that works for you. I’m a Hindu. That works better for me.” This perspective casts orthodox Christian beliefs and biblical claims into doubt. More about that in a moment.Read More
When someone says, “I’ll be there” or “I’ll do that” do you believe them? It really depends on the person, doesn’t it? I once had a Sunday School superintendent, a nice guy by the way, who seldom followed through with his promises. He meant well, but . . .On the other hand, there are some folks in my church now whose word is as good as gold. If they commit, consider it done. Where do you fall on this spectrum? Is your word your bond?Read More
“The United States is a spiritually dark country,” said the man. What made the statement leap out at me, was the felllow making it; a missionary to Colombia for over 20 years. Colombia is a mess; a country ripped apart for decades by civil war, drugs, and corruption. He himself had been kidnapped and held for ransom by guerillas. Yet he had the nerve to come to our relatively safe and prosperous country and make a comment like that – in the rural Midwest Wisconsin, no less.Read More
“Cindy, you’ve just got to trust God to take care of your problem. He’ll do it.”
“You’re right,” Cindy replied, as she turned to walk away. And she believed what she said. But anxiety still haunted her the next day – which added guilt to her worry. What kind of Christian was she if she didn’t trust God?
“But how do I know that I really believe in Jesus?” said the woman.
“It’s not about emotions,” I replied, “Believing in Jesus is an act of the will.”
“What does that mean?” she asked. I stood there silent. How does one explain “an act of the will”? This is a phrase you’ve heard me use in a number of essays, covering a wide range of spiritual topics. “Your will is in charge, not your emotions,” I frequently assert.
But what does it mean?Read More
As some of you know, one of my passions is memorizing the Bible. I do this by setting it to music. One day, quite a while back, a fellow pastor seemed puzzled by my obsession with Scripture. While he certainly respects and values the Bible, in his tradition, apparently, the “Word” with a capital “W” is more emphasized. For those who don’t know what this means, “Word” with a capital “W” refers to Jesus, as referred to in John 1:1, which says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”Read More
English, like any language, has its strengths and weaknesses. This week I want to talk about an English word I consider awkward – the word “selflessness”. “Selflessness” is a term meant to convey a beautiful character trait – the ability to thoughtfully put the needs of others ahead of our own. If you’ve ever met a person who does this well you know how uplifting and helpful they are to be around.Read More
The point of connection between believers and non-believers has moved. The frontline for sharing Christ is now mostly outside of the church building. Unbelievers are not entering our sanctuary doors. We must increasingly go to them where they are.
One of the most common places of contact between Christians and non-Christians is work.Read More
“Are you saying that only Christians will go to heaven?” asked the person indignantly. “What about people who didn’t grow up in a place where Christianity was taught? What about people who have never heard the name of Jesus or at least had Him explained well? Are they condemned to eternal suffering? How is that fair?!”Read More
When we become a born-again follower of Jesus Christ, our relationship with millions of other human beings abruptly undergoes a dramatic metamorphous. In Christ, we who were separate are now joined . The Bible uses all kinds of metaphors to try to describe the relationship of believer to fellow-believer. We’re the bride of Christ (Rev. 19:6-9), the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12) and brothers and sisters in God’s family; (John 1:12).Read More
There are a number of verses in the New Testament which have long fascinated and frustrated me. Let me quote a couple of them for you. John 14:13 “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” Matthew 21:21 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”Read More
I’m big on the Bible. If you’ve listened to these podcasts or read my blogs you know that by now. I’m constantly memorizing and quoting Scripture. Yet you might be surprised, though, to hear that I also listen to and read from sources outside of my conservative Christian circle – even sources antagonistic to my faith. I find this helpful in a number of ways. This leads to our first question:Read More
I spend a few minutes most days scanning Facebook. Videos are among the most popular re-posts. A simple phrase sometimes appears under a video which always captures my attention: the phrase “Wait for it.” This is a phrase usually freighted with a sort of mischievous delight. It tells me that, in a rather ordinary video, say people fishing in a boat, craziness is about to erupt – like a whale suddenly breaching three feet away, scaring the fishermen silly.Read More
Recently I participated in a support group for evangelism. As we discussed various strategies for sharing Christ, one of the participants made the comment, “Of course, I don’t want to treat the unbeliever as a project.” There seemed to be general assent that he was right. And, put that way, who wouldn’t agree? It sounds so ugly to treat another person as a “project”. This is, in fact, currently a bit of common lore shared across our society today, even outside of Christian circles. People should never be viewed as “projects”.Read More