Friday, October 31, 2014

The verse that awakened Martin Luther

(This is one of two Reformation Day posts I am republishing today. This one on the Bible verse God used to bring Martin Luther to understand justification by faith is from 2011.)

Today is Reformation Day. While Halloween is observed by many, we – as evangelical and Reformed – have reason to celebrate what this occasion represents. On Oct. 31, 1517, Catholic monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther sought a debate on the practice of indulgences in the Catholic Church, but his action that day helped produce something much greater. He ignited a conflagration that swept through Europe and continues to burn today. It is known as the Reformation. As it has been described, it was a recovery of the gospel that had grievously been lost by the church.

The Reformation truths restored included the sole authority of Scripture, the headship of Christ over His church and salvation by grace alone. At the heart of the Reformation – and of Luther’s transformation into a courageous reformer – was the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

The key verse God used in Luther’s spiritual awakening was Rom. 1:17. Church historian Bruce Shelley describes it this way in his book Church History in Plain Language:
A new and revolutionary picture of God began developing in Luther’s restless soul. Finally, in 1515 while pondering St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans Luther came upon the words: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith” (1:17, KJV). Here was his key to spiritual certainty: “Night and day I pondered,” Luther later recalled, “until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice 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.”

Luther saw it clearly now. Man is saved only by faith in the merit of Christ’s sacrifice. The cross alone can remove man’s sin and save him from the grasp of the devil. Luther had come to his famous doctrine of justification by faith alone. He saw how sharply it clashed with the Roman church’s doctrine of justification by faith and good works – the demonstration of faith through virtuous acts, acceptance of church dogma, and participation in church ritual.
We can give thanks today for God’s gracious work in and through Martin Luther and many others. May we guard the gospel so our church never loses it, and may we proclaim it clearly to others.

The five 'solas' of the Reformation

'Luther's 95 Theses' photo (c) 2008, Keren Tan - license: is one of two Reformation Day posts I am republishing today. This one on the five solas of the Reformation is from 2012.)

Happy Reformation Day!

As evangelical Christians, we should rejoice in this day and what it represents. On Oct. 31, 1517, a Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. That event helped set off the Reformation, which continued for decades and still affects us today. We will celebrate the 500th anniversary of this history-changing event in five years, God willing.

That reform came at great cost to Luther and many others, and we continue to benefit from their sacrifice and the truths they recovered, stood for and proclaimed. The issues that produced the Protestant and evangelical movements remain important today.

The truths of the Reformation are often summarized as the five solas. That word, sola, means “only” or “alone.” The five are: Scripture alone; Christ alone; grace alone; faith alone, and the glory of God alone.

The use of the word “alone” is important. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church did not deny Scripture had authority; it said Scripture was not the sole final authority.

I was reminded of the ongoing importance of the Reformation and its impact on our lives at a recent Capitol Hill briefing I covered as a news reporter. A panel of three evangelicals and a Roman Catholic gathered to discuss criminal justice in the United States.

One evangelical spokesman, a Southern Baptist, said early in his presentation, “Southern Baptists consider themselves people of the Book. Our question always first is: What does the Bible have to say about an issue?” The next speaker, also an evangelical, affirmed that view.

The representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops followed and said, “[W]hile the Southern Baptists and evangelicals might be people of the Book, Catholics are people of the papal encyclical and the bishops statement.”

Many in the audience laughed, but that brief account demonstrated one of the differences that still remain between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.

As we think about the Reformation ignited by Luther on this date 495 years ago, let us remind ourselves of these truths:

-- Scripture alone is our final authority, not Scripture plus an individual, council, church, tradition, experience or document.

-- Christ alone is our mediator with God, not Christ plus any human righteousness or accomplishment.

-- Grace alone is the way of salvation, not grace plus any human work or method.

-- Faith alone is the means of justification, not faith plus any human merit or infusion of Christ’s righteousness.

-- The glory of God alone is the purpose of life, not His glory plus that of any other.

As those saved by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone, may we hold onto these truths as we recognize our ongoing need for reformation in our own lives.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Scripture's testimony to the church's importance

One of the struggles we seem to have in American Christianity is to gain a proper understanding of the significance of the church. We have to overcome the erroneous concept the church is a building or a meeting. We have to surmount the privatized nature of much of evangelical Christianity.

Fortunately, the tide has been turning in the last decade or two. Christians increasingly seem to understand the value and significance of the church to God – and to their lives.

The local church is integral to every Christian. To begin to understand the value of the local church, it helps to understand the value of the church in its fullness – what is referred to as the universal church.

Apart from many scriptural references that do not use the word "church" while clearly referring to it, here are four truths based on the New Testament's use of that word that demonstrate its importance:

1. The church is loved by Christ, who died to save her. “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25b).

2. The church belongs to Christ and is built by Him. “[U]pon this rock I will build My church” (Matt. 16:18b).

3. The church is the body of Christ, who is her head. “And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23).

4. The church is the means by which God shows His wisdom to spiritual beings. “[T]he manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10).

May a growing comprehension of what the church is fuel a deepening love in us for Christ and His church.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

'The lost virtue of modesty'

I preached a sermon regarding modesty on the last Sunday of August and followed with two blog posts you can read here and here.

Much more could be said to Christians about modesty, and Kevin DeYoung made a great contribution to that effort with "The lost virtue of modesty," an Oct. 2 blog post at The Gospel Coalition site. The pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Mich., eloquently made some excellent, biblical points in his post. Among the standout lines in his post:

-- “Modesty accepts that our bodies also live in community.

-- “The absence of modesty in one party does not justify the absence of restraint in another.

-- “Immodest dress tells the world, 'I’m not sure I have anything more to offer than this. What you see is really all you get.'"

The complete text of DeYoung’s post follows. I commend it to you highly.
I don’t know if modest is hottest, but I do know that modesty is biblical.

It is one of the marks of the confusion of our age that so many teenagers and young adults are more ashamed to dress with modest reserve than to very nearly undress entirely. Even after we give full throat to the necessary caveats – being pretty (or handsome) is not a sin, working to improve your appearance does not have to be vanity, the line between modest and immodest is not always black and white – we are still left with the undeniable biblical fact that God considers modesty a virtue and its opposite a vice.

Here are five biblical reasons Christians should embrace modesty as a God-designed, God-desired good thing.

1. Modesty protects what is intimate. There is a certain strand of feminism which says women should be proud of their sexual prowess and that any insistence they cover up what they don’t feel like covering up only serves to reinforce patriarchal notions that men have the right to determine what women do with their bodies. But the Bible’s call to modesty is not based on the supposed naughtiness of the female form. God’s good command to cover up is not meant to punish, but to protect. As Wendy Shalit writes, “The pressure on girls today to take sexy selfies comes out of a culture that routinely equates modesty with shame, instead of recognizing it for what it really is: an impulse that protects what is precious and intimate.” The common refrain of the bride – “do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (Song of Solomon 2:7) – is a call from one woman to a group of single women to save sexual arousal and sexual activity for its proper time, with the proper person, in the proper place.

2. Modesty accepts that our bodies also live in community. What does that mean? It means that while it sounds nice to say, “It’s my body. If I want to let it all hang out, that’s my business.” This is to forget that our bodies exist in a wider network of relationships, just like our speech does, and our actions, our will, and our desires. How we dress is not determined by how others wished we would dress. And yet, it would be sub-Christian to act as if the spiritual state of those around us was inconsequential.

Before going any further, let me state this as clearly as possible: men are responsible for their adultery, for their fornication, for their pornographic viewing, for their lust, and for their (heaven forbid) sexual assault, regardless of how a woman dresses. The Bible does not enjoin modesty on either sex because the opposite sex is simply incapable of keeping its pants on and its thoughts in check. Listen men: if Potiphar’s wife were to barge in and dance a bare-bellied jig on your kitchen table and strip you down to your birthday suit, you would still not be excused in committing adultery with her. The absence of modesty in one party does not justify the absence of restraint in another.

Having said all that, does not the law of love suggest that we should want to avoid enticing others into sin? The phrase “with lustful intent” in Matthew 5:28 is translated by some scholars (D.A. Carson among them): “so as to get her lust.” The meaning, then, instead of being about lust in the man’s heart, would be about the man wanting to get a woman to lust after him. Whether one accepts this minority position or not, it’s still a fair application to think that Jesus’ statement forbids us from having a heart attitude that lusts and a heart attitude that wants to be lusted after. Some people want to see pornography and others want to be pornography. Maybe not in a literal sense, but there are men and women who crave the power, the attention, and the status that comes from being noticed and sought after. This entices others to sin and is in itself sinful.

3. Modesty operates with the Bible’s negative assessment of public nudity post-Fall. From Adam and Eve scrambling for fig leaves (Gen. 3:10), to the dishonorable nakedness of Noah (Gen. 9:21), to the embarrassingly exposed buttocks of David’s men (2 Samuel 10:4), the Bible knows we inhabit a fallen world in which certain aspects of our bodily selves are meant to be hidden. Indeed, this is precisely what Paul presumes when he speaks of “our unpresentable parts” which must be “treated with greater modesty” (1 Cor. 12:23). There’s a reason momma called them private parts.

4. Modesty embraces the strong biblical admonition to refrain from sensuality. Sensuality (Gk: aselgeia) is a distinguishing characteristic of the flesh and one of the marks of the pagan world (Gal. 5:19; Rom. 13:13; 2 Cor. 12:21; 2 Pet. 2:2, 18). Does the word give us exact instructions on where good taste trips over into sensuality – how long skirts can be, what sort of bathing suit to wear, or whether beefy men need to run around shirtless when its 60 degrees in Michigan? No. But surely we can agree that it is not uncommon for men and women to dress in ways which only add to the look and feel of our culture’s ubiquitous sensuality. If the word aselgeia suggests sexual excess (TDNT), we would do well to consider whether the desire behind our deportment is to starve this sensual beast or to sate it.

5. Modesty demonstrates to others that we have more important things to offer than good looks and sex appeal. The point of 1Timothy 2:9 and 1 Peter 3:3-4 is not an absolute prohibition against trying to look nice. The prohibition is against trying so very hard to look good in all the ways that are so relatively unimportant. The question asked of women in these verses – and it certainly applies to men as well – is this: will you grab people’s attention with hair and jewelry and sexy clothes or will your presence in the room be unmistakable because of your Christlike character? Immodest dress tells the world, “I’m not sure I have anything more to offer than this. What you see is really all you get.”

Let me state the obvious: the Bible has no pictures. There is no inspired how-to manual for getting dressed in the morning. There are matters of culture, conscience, and context which surely come into place. I have no checklist to check off before you head out the door.

But if the Bible is to be believed, this whole business of modesty is not irrelevant to Christian discipleship. Our bodies have been bought with a price. Therefore glorify God with your body (1 Cor. 6:20). Which means we don’t show everyone everything we might think is worth seeing. And it means we won’t be embarrassed to keep most private those things that are most precious. Shame is a powerful category, in the Bible and in our own day. The key is knowing what things we should actually be ashamed of.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Suddenly, same-sex marriage is here

Same-sex marriage quickly became more than a "what-if" scenario this week in our state. It is now a legal reality.

The U.S. Supreme Court's Oct. 6 announcement it would not review any of the marriage rulings before it from lower courts immediately wiped out laws or constitutional amendments in Virginia and four other states that limited marriage to a man and a woman. Same-sex weddings began taking place the same day, and marriages of same-sex couples from other states became legal in our state and others.

In addition, the Supreme Court's action paved the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage in six other states in federal appeals court circuits that include the five states directly affected. An Oct. 7 ruling by another appeals court opened the gates for legalized same-sex marriage in five more states. As a result, the stage is set for same-sex marriage to be legal in 35 of the 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia.

With a single line, the country's highest court ended the hypotheticals for people in Virginia -- the earthly home of my wife and me, as well as the church I pastor. The theoretical became actual.

So what does this mean for Covenant Community Church and others who are following Jesus? Much more could be written, but here are a few thoughts:

1. Our witness to marriage must not change. The government's newly expanded definition of the union does not change the original definition. As those claimed by God through Christ, we must continue to affirm marriage as given by the Creator in making human beings -- it is only between one man and one woman.

2. Our witness will be challenged. This could be both personal and legal. Our view of marriage as those who believe in biblical authority likely will become less acceptable among others as they get used to the new marriage regime. It will be uncomfortable to disagree with those we love who seek our affirmation of their same-sex wedding and marriage. Clashes between the legal rights of same-sex couples and the religious freedom of convictional Christians will play out in courts. Christians with wedding service businesses -- such as photographers, florists and bakers -- have not fared well so far in other states when declining to work at same-sex ceremonies. It is uncertain what the effect may eventually be for churches and pastors.

3. Our witness must be bold and compassionate. We must prepare ourselves to say, "No," to family and friends who want us to attend their weddings. To be witnesses at a same-sex wedding -- which describes those who attend such a ceremony -- is to support something we know not to be a wedding or a marriage as defined by God. It also is to commit ourselves to holding the couple to their vows. We -- as those saved by the One whose gospel is pictured by marriage -- are not free to lend such support to what God has refused to affirm. In this and other situations that likely will confront us, our boldness should be seasoned by grace, love and gentleness. We are to love people, not the winning of arguments. We are to give them the reconciling message of Jesus and His saving work. We are to love and treasure Christ enough to be willing to suffer the consequences of obeying Him, in spite of the cost relationally and financially.

Covenant Community Church, and every other New Testament church, is called to this hour. As co-laborers in the same fellowship, we have the opportunity to encourage, support and pray for one another. We face difficult times, but we face them in unity with one another. As we do so, may Jesus and His people become even more valued by us.

* -- Photo source

Friday, October 3, 2014

Marriage and the church of Jesus Christ

Right now, there seems to be no end to the distressing news about marriage.

For our society, it came last week in the results of a new study.

For our nuclear family, it came this week in the news that a friend of one of us recently entered into a legal marriage to his same-sex partner. And several of his friends -- who are, or were, professing evangelicals – applauded the wedding and marriage.

The new report from the Pew Research Center included the following troubling trends:

-- The percentage of American adults who have never married is at an all-time high. One in five adults 25 years of age and older fits this description. In 1960, only nine percent of adults in that age range had never married.

-- Only 46 percent of Americans say society is better off if people make marriage and children a priority, while 50 percent say society is just as well off if people have other priorities. This way of thinking is stronger among younger adults: 67 percent of those 18 to 29 years of age affirm the latter perspective, and 53 percent of those 30 to 49 agree with it.

These trends provide more evidence of “the marginalization of marriage in American life,” R. Albert Mohler said on his podcast Oct. 2. Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

“We’re involved in a massive social experiment in the present to see if you can have a society that does not respect marriage – that does not have marriage as the central relational expectation,” Mohler said. “No previous society known to human experience has been so organized, but in our post-Christian, postmodern, post-whatever age, a considerable number of Americans have decided that marriage is now one of those things we can well do without.”

This is not an insignificant issue for the church of Jesus Christ. Marriage is a gift to all human beings. God, not humanity and not human society, established it. It is to last as long as a man and a woman who have made vows to each other live. It is important to the children marriage produces, and it is important to the societies they fill. Its fullest meaning is its portrayal of the ultimate marriage between Christ and His bride, the church.

As the church, we are to affirm God’s definition of and intention for marriage. We are to defend it and explain it before a watching world. We are to present it to the people of God as the beautiful, one-flesh covenant and vital means of sanctification it is designed to be. We are to honor it, while also honoring singleness biblically. We are to remember the church – made up of the married, never married, divorced and widowed – is eternal. Our marriages are not. We are to remember our primary mission is to make disciples, not husbands and wives – though disciples who are married should be gracious, loving and faithful husbands and wives. Yet, we are to promote the true meaning of marriage and the sacrificial service that makes marriage joyful and rewarding while pointing to the beauty of Jesus.

This is a challenging time for the church on the issue of marriage, but we can take heart that God remains in control and we are blessed to be His representatives in this culture. May we represent Him with compassion and boldness as those who have nothing of eternal significance to lose because of His gospel.

* -- Photo source