Another Reformation?

Lars Qualben, in his book, “A History of the Christian Church,” gives a brief description of Erfurt, German in the sixteenth century. He writes, “At the age of eighteen, Luther went to the University of Erfurt, the most celebrated institution of learning at the time. This wealthy city of Europe had an abundance of churches with some of the best preachers in the country. As a university student, Luther was a good, pious Catholic. He attended church services faithfully and was especially fond of Sebastian Weinman, a powerful preacher who sharply rebuked the prevailing vices of the day. Luther listened to him and other priests in Erfurt, but later said that he had never heard a truly evangelical sermon from any pulpit in the city.”

Ê

Erfurt had many churches, but little Gospel.

Ê

Qualben continues, “The University of Erfurt had been foremost in Germany in introducing the new learning. The Humanistic influence had created a general desire for a more liberal, intellectual culture and an inspiration for improvement in the affairs of the Church. However, a close and strict alliance between church and the university remained. A severe criticism of prevailing vices and corruptions existed in humanistic circles, but this criticism did not lead anyone to the Gospel and a saving faith in Jesus Christ.”

Ê

In this setting, a young man with a brilliant mind and a strong personality named Martin Luther entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. During the next fourteen years, Luther lived with his Bible and discovered six basic truths that changed his life. They were:

Ê

1. ÊWe are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. It was while preparing his lectures on Romans for his students at the university of Wittenberg that Luther had his Damascus experience. He labored with this question: How can one appease an angry God? But then the day came when the Holy Spirit opened the doors to Luther’s heart, and he read these words: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ÔThe righteous will live by faith.'”

Ê

Luther stood before God as righteous. It was not by his good works, but by trusting Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. “By grace you are saved through faith.” This is the primary message of the reformation.

Ê

And to think that the poor people at Erfurt were buying indulgences so that their sins could be taken care of. Such foolishness had to be exposed and stopped.

Ê

2. Every Christian has direct access to God through Jesus Christ. God speaks directly to us through his Word, and we can come to him in prayer. It is what we call a personal relationship with God. We refer to this teaching as the universal priesthood of all believers. It is not necessary to go through bishops and popes. God is available to the believer at all times.

Ê

3. The Bible is the sole authority for faith and life. Tradition has value only as far as it is based in Scripture.

Ê

4. The Bible cannot be understood from human speculation, but must be interpreted by the aid of the Holy Spirit.

Ê

Luther confessed that on the day he received his doctor’s degree he did not understand the way of salvation. It was not until the Holy Spirit had spoken through the Word that he understood God’s way.

Ê

5. The essence of God is love. Religion is not based on law, but on grace. This grace is free and must be accepted and enjoyed by all in faith.

Ê

We seek to do the will of God as we live out of love for him. He freely forgives Ð purely out of grace Ð us when we stumble and fall.

Ê

6. It is the blessed privilege of every Christian to have full certainty of their salvation in Christ. We do not have to live in darkness regarding our eternal destiny. Christ has prepared a place for us in the heavenly mansions.

Ê

Luther looked at Erfurt and saw how the people lived in spiritual bondage. They had to know God’s redemptive love in Jesus Christ. This led him to write the ninety-five theses and nail them to the Castle Church door at Wittenberg. These biblical truths should have been debated, but the Church did not want to be involved in the Reformation and clean house of all her errors that had accumulated through the years.

Ê

Does Erfurt in the sixteenth century have similarities to your town and mine in the twenty-first century?

Ê

Are people ignorant of God’s plan for their salvation? Do many live and die without the assurance of their salvation? Are there those who believe and teach that the Bible must be brought up to date so that we can be more in conformity with our culture? Do we understand that it is only when the Scriptures are opened by the Spirit that this is God’s revelation and our only authority in matters of faith and life?

Ê

If Erfurt has given us a spiritual picture of our day, it is time for another reformation. Were God to raise up a second Martin Luther, could there be another reformation? As I listen to people of all denominations Ð and some outside the Church Ð I wonder what God has in store for us. We have walked away from some basics of the Scriptures. I believe a spiritual hunger exists that needs to be fed, and many people are ready for a spiritual awakening within our land.

Ê

How God will bring about another reformation, no one knows. Maybe this time it will not be one person. God could use many ways to bring his Church back to the biblical teachings. How he will act we do not know, but this we do know: Jesus Christ has said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). He is watching over His Church.

Do You Believe God Is in Debt to You?

Do we believe that God is in debt to us? If not, then why are we at times angry with God and feel he has acted unfairly with us?

Do we sometimes act like the Pharisee who is praying in our text today? I don’t believe many of us would pray, at least in the presence of others, as the Pharisee did. But could it be that we entertain such thoughts of self-righteousness and infer that God owes us a lot for all the good things we do for him?

It was often a challenge to teach the basic doctrines of the Christian faith to a ninth-grade confirmation class. They came to the church from school and were tired of having to sit in class. On one particular day, the subject was humility, which does not come naturally to some red-blooded, American, fifteen-year-old kids.

To get their attention, I stood in front of the class and said, “Look at me! I trust Jesus Christ as my Savior. I serve him daily and live according to his Word. O, I am so happy that I am not like some of my friends and neighbors. I have had only one wife. One of my neighbors has been married and divorced three times! I do not drink alcohol. My friend was just arrested for drunken driving. I go to church every Sunday. My brother never goes to church. I am not profane. The man across the street cannot even open his mouth without taking God’s name in vain.”

By this time I had the students’ attention, and they wondered what kind of person I really was. But then I said, “This is fictitious up to a point. However, don’t we sometimes think, ÔI am not perfect, but I am a lot better than many people.’ It seems to be a part of our sinful nature.”

Even Israel’s great King David writes words such as these in Psalm 17:3-8:

“Though you probe my heart and examine me at night, though you test me, you will find nothing; I have resolved that my mouth will not sin. As for the deeds of men Ð by the word of your lips I have kept myself from the ways of the violent. My steps have held to your paths; my feet have not slipped.

“I call on you, O God, for you will answer me; give ear to me and hear my prayer. Show the wonder of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes.

“Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.”

God can do little for people with a self-righteous attitude. Such people believe they are sufficient unto themselves. Until that attitude is changed, they do not need a Savior.

The second person in the parable is a tax collector. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This is a teaching parable. It shows how the Kingdom of God works. The average person does not have a clue how the Kingdom of God works. He believes he can earn his way into the good grace of God, and he may even believe that God is in debt to him.

If that is not his belief, he wonders if there really is a Kingdom of God. And if it does exist, the Creator must have included all of us, or chosen who He wants in His Kingdom and annihilated the rest. This is a predestinarian point of view.

Entrance into the Kingdom of God comes only by the mercy of God. We express this truth in the song, “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.” As we come to him, God forgives our sins. However, this is a gift and not a payment for our good works. God owes us nothing.

I recall a man who was angry with God. His wife died in childbirth and left him with a daughter who had some major physical problems. He questioned why this God of love dealt him such a dirty deal. How could he care for this child? Didn’t God care? Hadn’t he been a faithful church member? His belief was that God owed him a healthy wife and child.

It helps us in our relationship with God to know that He owes us nothing. When hardships come, we can wonder where God is. This is Satan’s slick trick. Yet, just wait and we will see that, while God owes us nothing, he is generous with his love and kindness Ð not because we deserve it, but instead because he loves us.

Christians know that, while God owes them nothing, we owe him our lives. Martin Luther wrote this so well in his small catechism: (He has redeemed me) “that I may be His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, . . .”

Don’t Give Up

Many parts of the Bible are very difficult to understand unless you live in a personal relationship with God and walk with him every day. Today’s text is a parable that Jesus is telling his disciples. It is a lesson on prayer.

The Gospel writer begins the parable by saying, “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” The disciples had tough days ahead of them as they carried the Gospel of Christ to people who would persecute and kill them.

To prepare these disciples for these difficult times, Jesus told them the story of a persistent woman who never gave up demanding justice. She continually went to the judge, even though he refused to answer her prayer. Finally, the judge said to himself, “Because this woman keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming.”

Then the Lord makes his point of the parable: “Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”

Just as the woman did not give up, neither does the Christian who takes his prayer to God for help.

The casual reader of the Bible who is not a Christian might have trouble understanding how Jesus could compare God with this unkind judge. Jesus is not comparing God with this unscrupulous judge, he is contrasting the two.

Jesus is teaching us to be persistent in our prayer life. Be repetitious in what we are asking God to give us, and then leave the request in God’s hands praying that his will be done.

Would we not agree that it is easier to start praying than it is to keep it up? Isn’t it easier to give way to Satan as we grow weary feeling that God is not listening? God’s Word tells us, Don’t quit! Keep on!

If you are not a Christian, do you wonder, as you hear this parable being explained, what it would be like to have a heavenly Father such as this Ð one to whom you could go and leave your requests and hurts? And even if God does not give us what we ask for, he has given us a big promise: “My grace will be sufficient for you to face trials and hurts.”

Jesus not only teaches this truth about prayer, he demonstrated it in his own life. Remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36f)? “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup (suffering and death) be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but your will be done.” When God answered Jesus’ prayer by saying no, our Lord said to his disciples, “Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer.”

How we need to hear this parable! Life confronts us with some difficult times. Often it is around the death of a family member. We pray for them to live and get well, but it isn’t happening. The life supports are disconnected, and we cry out with broken hearts, “Where are you? Where are you, God?”

God understands and he says, “Right here, my child whom I love. Right here.”

God Is . . . In Charge

We’re going to do a little time traveling today. Picture a ceremony back in ancient Jerusalem. There is a lot of pageantry and fanfare going on. Thousands of people are gathered at the front of a palace. There is a huge platform out front on which are seated all sorts of officials.

At the center of attention is a man who is kneeling before another man dressed in priestly garb. This priest is holding up a horn of a ram as in prayer before God. If you could see inside, you’d find that it is full of olive oil. The kneeling man is saying a vow to serve God, advance His kingdom, and take better care of God’s people.

When he’s done, the priest pours the horn full of oil out upon the head of this kneeling man, and the crowd cheers. Israel has a new king! It’s coronation day. The kneeling man stands and is hailed as the anointed one of God. As God’s son, as God’s messiah. Then a special song begins to play. It is Psalm 2, our scriptural text for today.

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”

The first verse of this song describes turbulence, trouble, opposition, and hostiles talking in hushed tones among themselves. They are plotting a rebellion against God and His king, the new anointed one. “Let us break this yoke that is upon us.”

The cords that are described in the first verse of this song are taken from agriculture. It talks about a yoke like the kind put upon oxen. “Let us break this yoke,” they say.

The verse has a rather mocking tone to it, as if asking, why? Why do these adversaries even bother to do this? I am sure as the audience hears this first verse, they smile and shake their heads. “You’re right. It’s ridiculous.”

Why would this conspiracy seem so ridiculous to them? Well, the next few verses tell us.

He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”

This is a picture of God in his heaven, watching all this take place. He is amused by their plotting and is chuckling to himself. “Do they really think they can pull it off?”, God wonders. “You have got to be kidding!” Then he speaks to these conspirators in his wrath. (And when God speaks, it is terrifying.)

“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” In other words, God is saying here, “You mess with my chosen king, you mess with me. You take me on thinking you are gods along with your little wooden idols, are going to have a chance. In the end you will find out you are going to lose. I am the One and the Only God. I am in charge.”

Then the king who has just been anointed speaks. Hear what this verse announces to the people:

I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

These are hopeful words, picturing a bright picture. The king says, “Don’t anyone worry. God is going to take care of us. God is in charge.”

The last verse is a warning to those who are conspiring against God and his king. “Now kings be wise and be warned: Don’t take on God.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled.

This reminds us of a verse from Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” You take on God and his anointed one, but don’t even think about it. Instead, “serve the Lord,” the verse says. Worship him. Kiss the king’s feet in submission and homage to God’s king. Because if you don’t, God will be angry and you will perish, for his anger is quickly kindled.

And then we get to the very conclusion and climax of where this Psalm is trying to point us.

Happy are all who take refuge in the Lord.

Take refuge by surrendering yourself to God’s care; submit to his rule, his yoke in your life.

The theme for this song is that God is in charge. Surrender to him.

Scholars in the past have referred to Psalm 2 as a royal psalm with a confident, majestic tone about it. It was sung when Israel’s kings were being installed into leadership over Israel. It was intended to rouse people’s trust in God and their confidence for the future, and it points them toward a new day with an ideal king when God would remove all the enemies of Israel and there would be peace and prosperity in the land.

This psalm became all the more important to God’s people as history moved on. After King David, came disappointment after disappointment when it came to the kings, beginning with David’s son, Solomon. One writer states, “The actual state of the kingdom of Israel at any age was at best a pale representation of the ideal kingdom being described here. The prophets looked for a day when Israel and Judah would be ruled by a davidic king. And the nations would be subject to him.”

As king after king was anointed into office, this song continued to be sung, most likely with hope in mind. Perhaps they were thinking, “Maybe this will be the one, that ideal king who will usher in that ideal kingdom, when God will bring about the reverence and respect from other nations of the world that his king deserves. Maybe this will be the ideal king Ð that Messiah to whom God will hand over all things.”

However, those dreams never fully materialized, and the people of Israel were taken away to a foreign land. They had no more kings. Their hopes sagged and the song was sung no more.

Then one day, many many years after this song was originally written, in the town of Bethlehem, a child was born. His parents and shepherds in the field heard an angelic announcement of a king. The messiah!

Years later the child, now a man, was anointed. It was not in front of a palace, or by a temple priest, but by a strange-looking prophet named John out in the wilderness, in a stream called the Jordan river. As He came up out of the water, he heard these same words from Psalm 2: “You are my Son, my begotten, and with you I am well pleased.” It was the song!

Later on, this same man would hear that kingly affirmation again as he stood on a mountaintop with a few of his followers. Enveloped in a cloud, he became dazzling bright and heard God’s Word speak, “This is my beloved son.”

Of course, we are talking about Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah. He was of the davidic line and was the Son of God in a most unique way. True God and true man. He had come to subdue all enemies under his feet. However, it was not with an army as the people dreamed; not with the power and might of a military leader, but at a cross and a grave. Where he will suffer, die, and rise to rescue his people Ð to rescue you and me.

Christ conquered all our worst enemies He conquered the power of sin, the power of death, and the power of the devil.

This song continued to be sung in the midst of the early Christian church’s persecution. In Acts 4:25, after Peter and James and John came back after being beaten and told to be quiet about the gospel, all the people in the church gathered and sang this song: “Why do the nations conspire against the Lord’s anointed.” They prayed Psalm 2 confidently reminding themselves that the Lord is in charge, and surrendering themselves to his care. The message was about their king, King Jesus.

Years later a fellow named Martin Luther wrote a song. And in this song he wrote these words: “Though hoards of devils fill this land, all threatening to devour us. We tremble not, unmoved we stand. They shall not over power us. Let this world’s tyrant rage, in battle we’ll engage. His might is doomed to fail. God’s judgment must prevail. The kingdom’s ours forever.”

The kingdom is ours forever. The song has been realized. And even though the plotting against our king Ð Jesus Christ Ð continues, the battle goes on, and the people of God face persecution in places around the world, and sometimes even in our own land, we have this assurance from our God Ð from our king Ð that one day this song will be fully realized when he returns Ð not in a manger, but in power and in glory upon the clouds. Every knee will then bow to him and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

People of God, the Lord is in charge. God is faithful to his own. God has given us a king. His name is Jesus, the Christ. Bow your knee, kiss his feet in worship, and surrender your heart to him, for this king promises, “Take my yoke upon you, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

The message of Psalm 2 is the same yesterday, today, and forever. No matter how bad things may look like in this world, God is in charge. Earthly kingdoms rise and fall, earthly rulers come and go, but one constant remains: the earth is the Lord’s, and God is in charge.

Psalm 2 is a powerful song. It is our song. Hang on to it. Happy is the one who takes refuge in God’s care, who follows God’s King, Jesus Christ.

Hidden Heresies

From the days of the apostles heresy has plagued the Christian faith. The attack on creeds is more severe today than it was 50 years ago.

Statements such as these are evidence of this attack:

¥ “We need deeds, not creeds.”

¥ “It doesn’t matter so much what we believe, only that we are sincere in our belief.”

The Apostles’ Creed is a confessional statement of the Christian Church. Each Sunday morning in the Lutheran church, the congregation confesses its faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. For many of us, this is a high point in the service. It reminds us of what we believe and that brothers and sisters in Christ are confessing this faith around the world.

In this confessional statement, Christians confess their faith in God the Father, who is the Creator; God the Son, Jesus Christ, who is our Redeemer; and God the Holy Spirit, who is the Sanctifier. To deny any of these biblical teachings is a heresy. For example, if a person, who confesses to be a Christian, says, “I doubt that Jesus Christ rose physically from the grave,” he has denied the faith and is not a Christian. If that person is clergy, he should be dismissed from the clergy roster of his denomination.

Today our Lord opens our eyes to hidden heresies. These are wrong beliefs hiding in the souls of believers, who are unaware that what they are teaching is wrong. This is best illustrated by reading the text.

The apostles were overwhelmed at the calling Jesus had given to them. They were to go and make disciples of all nations. The apostles responded saying, “Lord, increase our faith.”

Jesus corrected their thinking by saying, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ÔBe uprooted and planted in the sea, and it will obey you.'”

Tom Wright, the English theologian, has said it well. “Jesus was telling them that it was not a great faith that they needed. It was faith in a great God.”

To believe that we can change ourselves, or others, is a hidden heresy. Many who would never deny the resurrection of Jesus believe that they can change themselves and others.

A heresy might be compared to a malignancy. Let it get out of control and it can kill you. The malignancy that is the most dangerous is not the one that is easily detected and is therefore removed. Instead, it is the malignancy hidden deep in the body, that even the most powerful equipment cannot detect, that are the killers. It is not until after they have done their killing work that they are found, and then it is too late.

So it is with our spiritual malignancies. We can deal with the obvious heresies. If a person denies a cardinal doctrine Ð like the resurrection of Jesus Ð we can work them. If they refuse to recant, they can be removed from any teaching responsibility in the church.

Our Evangelical Lutheran Church’s sexuality statement illustrates such a heresy. Once, the ELCA declared the practice of homosexuality was sin and prohibited such people from serving as pastors on its clergy roster. This is the teaching of the Bible. Today, practicing homosexuals may be ordained and called as pastors in our congregations. This is a hidden heresy.

Accept this hidden heresy and the ELCA can no longer honestly teach that it believes the Bible is the inspired Word of God and the only authority in matters of faith and life. Now where does it go for its authority?

Drive through some of our New England towns and you will see churches that have died. Once people gathered in those buildings to hear the Bible expounded, proclaiming Jesus Christ, his suffering, death, and resurrection for our sins. Now that message is no longer believed or proclaimed. If a congregation is still assembling, it proclaims another message telling the people of the beauty of creation and the goodness of the human being.

So God’s Word sends a warning to his people: Beware of false teachings, and do not forget the hidden heresies. They may not be easily detected but they pose also a serious threat to the life of the church.