Whether in this world or beyond, nothing is more precious, permanent, or valuable than God himself.
Where do your thoughts come from?
Our conscious thoughts always come from somewhere. That’s obvious enough, you might think. My guess, though, is that much of the time it’s not obvious to you at all where your thoughts are coming from.
Of course, sensory and information input give you frequent food for thought (like this article is doing right now). But what about the thoughts demanding your attention first thing in the morning, or last thing at night, or the compulsive thoughts that dictate your behaviors?
I’ll give you a personal example. During my morning prayer time, it’s not uncommon for me to suddenly realize I’ve stopped praying and am now engaged in an imaginary conversation with myself or someone else regarding something I’m currently concerned about. When I try to stop and get back to praying, it can be very hard — my thoughts are demanding my attention.
You know what I mean, because you experience this too. Such thoughts often have what feels like a gravitational pull on our attention, almost like we can’t resist going where they want to lead us, even if we don’t want to go there. Where are these coming from?Thoughts, Emotions, Beliefs
If we want to know where our thoughts are coming from, the first thing to examine is our emotions. What specifically are we feeling — fear, anxiety, anger, disappointment, discouragement, grief, sadness, hope, excitement, pride, joy, desire, anticipation? Sometimes powerful emotions like these push us down a certain train of thought. Other times certain thoughts stir up such emotions. It doesn’t really matter which comes first, because our emotions always point to what’s feeding our thoughts.
And what our emotions point to are our underlying beliefs. What we believe is what feeds our thoughts — the thoughts that really matter to us and guide how we live.
We all have official beliefs and functional beliefs, and the beliefs I’m talking about are the latter. Our official beliefs are like a company’s formal mission statement, core values, and policy handbook. Functional beliefs are like how a company actually operates. If we want to know what a company really values, we look at its operations. If we want to know what we really believe at any given moment, we look at our functional beliefs.
And the quickest way to see our functional beliefs is to look underneath our emotions. That’s what’s feeding our dominating, behavior-dictating thoughts.Think About These Things
But is any of this in the Bible? Yes. God, having designed the human psyche, is the supreme Psychologist, and the Bible is an incredible psychology text. Functional belief-fueled emotions and thoughts are all over the Bible. Why did Gideon think to hide his wheat in the winepress (Judges 6:11)? Why did David think sleeping with Bathsheba was a good idea (2 Samuel 11)? Why did Peter think he should deny Jesus to the servant girl (Matthew 26:69–70)? Why did the anguished father think to say to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24)?
But the text I’ve found most helpful recently is Philippians 4:8:
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Note the last four words: “think about these things.” That’s a strong statement. Paul isn’t offering us counsel; he’s giving us a command. This is something we must obey. God is saying something profound to us through Paul: there is a way to change how we think, and we must choose that way. What way?
Look at the list. Have you ever stopped to think how abstract the concepts Paul lists are? The last time you struggled to escape a compulsive train of thought, how much help were concepts like truth, honor, justice, purity, excellence, and the rest? To the degree they remained abstract, probably no help at all.
Paul never intended these concepts to remain abstract. That’s why he wrote “whatever is” before each one. Paul knew that giving rise to our negative, sinful thoughts are specific false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, ugly, disgraceful, and detestable functional beliefs. Wherever these functional sinful beliefs (or unbeliefs) exist in us, manifesting in our demanding sinful thoughts and emotions, they must be confronted and replaced with “whatever is” the appropriate, God-dependent belief.Fight for Joy
When we are struggling with distracting, demanding thoughts and emotions, God wants us to know that we are not victims who must simply endure the miserable ride on the train of our thoughts. He wants us to seize the controls he’s given us, switch tracks, and head in a faithful, joyful direction.
And we do this by remembering that superficial thoughts and emotions are the offspring of our deeper functional beliefs. Those false beliefs are based on false promises — any promise that doesn’t have its origin in God through his word. Therefore, when we unseat specific false promises by trusting true promises, we unseat the false belief giving life to dominating emotions and thoughts. When we do this, it produces spiritual peace and joy, even if nothing has changed in our circumstances.
This is hard work, especially if we’re out of practice or have never really made this a consistent practice. It’s a fight of faith, one we engage numerous times a day. And in habits of sinful thought and feeling we’ve conditioned ourselves to indulge, we should expect it to be particularly difficult.
But difficult doesn’t mean impossible, for “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Yes, learning the habit of not being pushed around by our thoughts and emotions requires us to exercise discipline. But biblical discipline is not in the long run the denial of pleasure, but the pursuit of pleasure (Hebrews 12:10–11).
It is for joy and freedom and love that God is calling us to fight with all our might to “think about these things.”
Dementia may turn God’s people into frail shadows of their former self, but these saints are sitting on the brink of a glory and power we can’t imagine.
Pain comes, suffering invades, and tears fall. But the Christian faith is one of inescapable joy.
Pain comes, suffering invades, and tears fall. But the Christian faith is one of inescapable joy.
Class that day began so peacefully.
My university professor began the Christian Love and Marriage class with a “fun little assignment to get the creative juices flowing.”
The task was simple: Draw what you think of when you envision the love of God.
She went around and handed out crayons and blank sheets of paper for our project. We had fifteen minutes.
The first five I just sat there. How could I, who could barely draw straight lines for stickmen, draw the love of God?
As my peers joyfully scribbled away, I grabbed the black crayon. I still recall those next ten minutes of worship.
The alarm rang — time for show and tell. Each of us went around and shared our drawings, explaining why we drew what we did.
The first student unveiled her picture: a collage of lipstick red hearts, shiny bubbles, and a dozen or so smiley faces.
The second student revealed a unicorn galloping over a rainbow.
The third, a meadow with the sun shining down on laughing butterflies.
The fourth, a worn-out teddy bear.
As each explained their picture, one thing became obvious: despite my previous assumption, none was joking. All artists took their work seriously.
“God’s love makes me feel a kind of warmth inside,” explained one girl.
“Yeah, his love is magical, like the best dream you don’t want to wake up from,” added another.
“I just see a big bouquet of butterflies when I think about how God loves all of us.”
“I just feel a sense of home with God’s love, like I do when I remember my childhood teddy bear.”
I revealed my picture. My classmates were first shocked. Then confused. Then disgusted.
“That’s pretty barbaric of you,” said the first.
“I don’t think such a gory event should depict God’s love,” contributed the second.
“This is why some people don’t want to explore Christianity,” scolded the third.
In my drawing, a hill quaked. Lightning flashed. Darkness enveloped. Two dark crosses backdropped the third. My sore hand held up my nearly torn through artwork depicting my Savior dying on the cross for my sins.
“I believe this to be God’s own picture of his love,” I said.
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)Fact or Feeling?
Notice what happened: When prompted to draw what each envisioned as the love of God, each drew what they felt when considering the love of God.
Instead of looking without themselves, they gazed within. The objective reality of God’s love for sinners was evidenced for them — not in the crushing and torture of the Son of God two thousand years ago — but was displayed in the fluttering sensations in their own hearts. How did they know God loved them? Their feelings told them so.
And their inners did not tell them of the fierce love of God demonstrated in the Son of God being brutally executed as he bore the wrath of God on sinners’ behalf. The fallen human heart is too politically correct, too Hallmark, too civilized to mention that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to be brutally murdered for it.
When God showed his love for sinners, it was rated R.He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not
If handed a box of crayons and a paper, I would be surprised if many would draw what my nominally Catholic peers did. But I too often share their disposition to look within instead of without to see whether God truly loves me from day to day.
I felt like I counted my family’s interests above my own today: He loves me.
I didn’t experience much joy in the word the past few mornings: He loves me not.
I am happy because I finally shared the gospel with my coworker: He loves me.
I was incredibly angry in my heart towards my spouse last night: He loves me not.
My heart overflowed today in corporate worship: He loves me.
I didn’t feel any warm sensations of his presence during prayer: He loves me not.
This life is utterly exhausting. It may not be legalism, but feelism is just as tyrannical.
Although it is true that if we have absolutely no subjective experience of God’s love ever, we most likely are not a child of God (Romans 5:5; 8:16). But we must not confuse faith’s gaze from the cross to our feelings. The Spirit in Romans 5:5 directs our gaze to the cross in Romans 5:6.Jesus Loves Me, This I Know
The gospel has a far better word for us than our fickle feelings:
The Father sent his only Son into the world so that I might not die in my sins (John 3:16): He loves me.
That Son emptied himself and took on human form to rescue his people (Philippians 2:6–7): He loves me.
Jesus Christ loved his Father and perfectly obeyed on my behalf, even unto death on a cross (Philippians 2:8–11): He loves me.
Jesus stepped forward in Gethsemane (John 18:4), bowing his knee to his Father’s will (Matthew 26:42): He loves me.
He was beaten as to be unrecognizable (Isaiah 52:14). He was whipped, scourged, spit on, mocked, slapped, bloodied, beaten, shamed: He loves me.
The Father crushed his own Son (Isaiah 53:10). He gave him the cup of wrath bearing my name (John 18:11). God did not spare his own Son (Romans 8:32): He loves me.
The Light of the world was snuffed; the Bread of life, broken; the King of kings, executed; the Lamb of God, slain; the Son of Man, tortured; the Son of God, forsaken; the Rock of ages, stricken; the blood of Christ, shed: Oh, how he loves me.
And the Father raised the Son from the dead. The Son reigns over the universe as my great Prophet, Priest, and King. The Spirit has made me new, is sustaining repentance and faith, and has sealed me for the day of Christ. He loves me.
Jesus, our life, is coming back. He will marry us. He will take us into his kingdom to reign with him. The time hastens on. He loves us.
As Christians, we no longer look to the drooping flower of our own love for God, peeling away petal by petal, muttering frantically to ourselves: He loves me, he loves me not.
Instead, we sing,
When Satan tempts us to despair,
Reminding of the lack within,
Upwards we look and see him there,
Who proved his love by conquering sin.
We spend our lives looking outside of ourselves to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1–2), who has proven God’s love once and for all, and will amaze his people afresh with that love forever.
The stakes are high when pastors do not root their points plainly from the text in front of them. Here are six consequences.
In middle school, my parents diagnosed me with a common disorder: selective hearing.
I couldn’t hear my dad telling me to do the dishes or take out the trash, but I could hear him whispering about my upcoming birthday presents. I don’t think I’m the only one with this problem. Selective hearing, also known as disobedience, is banned in the kingdom of Christ. Disciples must always be dialed in to the voice of our Lord.
Listening to Jesus is vital to the Christian life. Discipleship demands non-selective hearing from Jesus. I’ve never heard his voice with my ears, but the risen Christ does speak to me: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). He speaks via the Scriptures.Hear His Voice
Today, we can hear Jesus speak with our eyeballs. In the red letters? Yes — and in all the black ones, too. We hear and behold his glory from Genesis to Revelation by the power of the Holy Spirit.
As puritan John Owen says, “To behold it [the glory of Christ], is not a work of fancy or imagination; it is not conversing with an image framed by the art of men without, or that of our own fancy within, but of faith exercised on divine revelations. This direction he gives us himself, John 5:39, ‘Search the Scriptures; for they are they which testify of me.’”
Genesis to Revelation is filled with the words and glory of Christ, inspired by the Holy Spirit, drawing his sheep to follow him. The Scriptures are more than ink printed on a forest of dead tree bark. The Bible is living and active.
Open it up. Listen.
The Father says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5). The Father’s love for the Son calls us to action. He wants us to listen to Jesus — to obey Jesus, to submit to Jesus, to follow Jesus. The Father invites us to view Jesus like he does — as the beloved Son with whom he is well pleased, and as the voice who is worth hearing.
Your love for the Lord is expressed in how you listen to the Lord (John 14:6). Your view of Jesus is revealed in how you hear him. There is a direct connection between our ears and our hearts. Worship is more than Jesus listening to what we have to say about him; it’s also us listening to what Jesus has to say, what he wants, what he commands, what he promises. And we must listen without selectivity.
Jesus gets our full attention. We can’t say we love Jesus while we tune him out.Don’t Edit While You Hear
Are you listening to Jesus in a non-edited manner? Selective listening is rebellion. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Do you find yourself reading the Bible and thinking, “Well, that’s not what he really meant,” or, “That’s just asking too much,” or, “I can’t do that”? If we find ourselves tweaking and diluting the Bible to fit comfortably around our desires, hunches, sins, and idols, the apostle John warns us — maybe you don’t know Jesus after all.
And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:3–6)
Hearing Jesus, the Word of God, in the word, is ground-level discipleship. How can we follow Jesus if we don’t hear from Jesus? Every time we crack open the Bible, we are sitting down to hear Jesus, like sheep with the Good Shepherd, we are listening to his direction. Listening is for discipleship, direction, comfort, rebuke, correction, training in righteousness, and encouragement — all of which Jesus speaks to us from the Bible.
There is no more refreshing voice in the universe than Jesus’s. Why not go to him? There’s a lot of voices in this world, but only one that commands our soul, our life, our all. We listen to Jesus, the beloved Son, because we love Jesus — and because he loves us. He has nothing bad to say to us.
Next time you open the Bible, offer a simple prayer: “Speak Lord. My Bible is open, your servant is listening.” He promises, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
You were made to be stunned by God, not just feel good about yourself. You’ll find your truest self when you forget yourself.
If Christian parents could choose to control one thing about our child’s future, we all would choose the same thing, wouldn’t we? Across every nation, every culture, in any generation, one thing rises highest on the prayer list of any Christian parent, dwarfing every other request we might make for our precious son or daughter: we want them to know, obey, and enjoy Jesus.
Of course we want them to live long and healthy lives. Of course we want them to learn and mature through their school years without caving in to peer pressure. Of course we want them to thrive in a career, whether they work in an office or at home. Of course we want them to marry, if God wills, and give us grandbabies. But even more than we want grandchildren — far more than we want grandchildren — we want our children to love our Lord with all their heart, and all their soul, and all their strength, and all their mind (Matthew 22:37).
We would trade in a heartbeat eighty years of cancer-free health, summa cum laude at commencement, financial stability and security, and a whole litter of baby boys and girls, if we knew that’s what it took to see our sons and daughters love Jesus. Wouldn’t we?A Good Father
I’m reading the story of Jotham and his son Ahaz with fresh eyes these days, because now I read it as a father. Ahaz’s grandfather Uzziah reigned for 52 years over God’s people, and for the majority of those years, “he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 26:4). But in the end, he failed the nation, embarrassed his family, rejected God, and fell into terrible sin (2 Chronicles 26:16).
Instead of falling into his father’s sin or blaming his own weaknesses and failures on his dad, Ahaz’s father, Jotham, simply “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord according to all that his father Uzziah had done, except he did not enter the temple of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 27:2). Jotham followed his father’s example in godliness, while refusing to repeat many of his father’s failures.
Ahaz’s father was not perfect, but unlike so many kings in the Old Testament, the record we have of his reign is a story of faithfulness, not wickedness. The author of Chronicles says, “Jotham became mighty, because he ordered his ways before the Lord his God” (2 Chronicles 27:6).Son of Disobedience
Jotham died young at 41, and the people made his son king. Ahaz was twenty years old. For twenty years Ahaz had watched his father lead by faith. So how did he respond to his father’s good and godly example?
Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord, as his father David had done, but he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel. (2 Chronicles 28:1–2)
The “not” does not seem to do this son’s disobedience justice. Ahaz did not grow up fatherless in a single-parent family. His father wasn’t a nominal or apathetic example as a believer. His father had not simply taught what was right in the eyes of the Lord; his father had done what was right in the eyes of the Lord. But Ahaz rejected all of it — a slave to sin, a son of disobedience, a child of wrath (Romans 6:16; Ephesians 2:2–3).
He made metal idols for the false god Baal (2 Chronicles 28:2). He made sacrifices and offerings to foreign gods “on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree” (2 Chronicles 28:4) — all over the land that God had promised and given his people. When God sent waves of enemies against the nation because of her sin, Ahaz ran to Assyria, and not God, for help (2 Chronicles 28:16–18). He even stole from the temple to bribe the Assyrian king (2 Chronicles 28:21). Then he destroyed the vessels for worship, slammed and locked the doors of the temple, and made altars all over Jerusalem where he worshiped the gods of the nation’s conquerors (2 Chronicles 28:22–25).Ceremonial Abortions
This son was so wicked, he even burned his own sons as an offering (2 Chronicles 28:3) — a series of ceremonial abortions after he had held the babies in his arms. Jotham had surely raised him to cherish and protect his children, and to diligently teach them, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4–5).
But instead of introducing his sons to “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6–7), Ahaz sacrificed his own little ones to a god who could not speak or hear or smell or feel (Psalm 115:5–7), a god who is worth nothing and brings nothing (Isaiah 44:9). He killed Jotham’s grandsons for nothing.
Watching Ahaz run away from the faith has always been difficult for me, but being a father has made it even more devastating. I’m suddenly able to imagine my own son rejecting Jesus and choosing sin after I am gone, refusing to tell my grandchildren about the strength, beauty, wisdom, and worth of our Savior. I could spend every day for the next twenty years sharing, teaching, modeling, inviting, and appealing — 7,300 days — and on the 7,301st day, he may still walk away.
My heart isn’t strong enough to think about it for long.What Can We Do?
So what can a father do? God doesn’t ask fathers (or mothers) to dictate what happens on our child’s 7,301st day — or on their first day, for that matter. Parenting never decisively determines a child’s destiny. Jotham could not be faithful for Ahaz. He could only be faithful in front of Ahaz.
You cannot bear your son’s guilt before the Lord. Only Christ can (Romans 3:23–25). You cannot give your daughter the gift of repentance and faith. Only God can (2 Timothy 2:25). You cannot perform the good works God has planned for your child. Only God can, through your children (Philippians 2:12–13; Ephesians 2:10), as the fruit of their own faith in him (James 2:26). As vulnerable and perilous as it may feel at times, we simply cannot guarantee our child’s godliness.
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow [my son or daughter] will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit [and believe or not believe]’— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring” (James 4:13–14). Yet we do not know. Despite what it feels like most days, you and I do not control or dictate any final detail in our children’s lives. We can only faithfully provide, influence, discipline, teach, and train under the sovereign parenting of a far better Father.Successful Parenting
We are not called to execute a complicated series of steps that secures a certain outcome in our child’s heart. As burdensome and impossible as that parenting technique seems, our flesh foolishly prefers it to trusting Someone else with our kids. No, success in parenting is not found in meticulously performing a process. Real success in parenting is taking today’s step in steadfast obedience to God’s word, by prayerful dependence on God’s strength, with open-handed faith in God’s plan — always relinquishing the short-term and long-term (even eternal) results to God’s will.
We all love the idea of open-handed faith in God’s plan — until it means our children might not believe in him. The irony in that tension is subtle, but thick. Do I trust God enough to let him decide what my child believes about God? As a father, if I’m honest, that feels even more intimidating than being tortured or martyred for my faith somewhere in the Middle East.
But if we are willing to trust God with our children’s futures, we can focus on parenting faithfully today, while pleading with him to move in their hearts and lead them to himself.Your Child’s Real Father
The birth certificate may declare that our sons and daughters are legally dependent on us, but they belong, first and foremost, to God. We can’t give our children to him, because they have always been his — dreamed up in his infinite imagination, delicately knit together by his hands (Psalm 139:13–15), placed by him in this part of the world at this point in history (Acts 17:26), every day planned by him before there was even one (Psalm 139:16). We may wake up one day and realize we can trust him with our children, but the reality is he has never stopped parenting them.
Before Jotham could truly be a godly father to Ahaz, he had to surrender Ahaz to God. Like Abraham, walking precious Isaac up the mountain, we must trust that whatever God calls us to do or endure in parenting, he will provide. He may not choose what we would choose for our children, or provide exactly what we ask for, but he will not choose wrongly, and he will give us everything we need.
The stakes are high when pastors do not root their points plainly from the text in front of them. Here are six consequences.
Peter charges us to be ready in season and out of season to give a defense of the hope that is in us. If asked to give a defense tomorrow, would you be ready?
One of the great rediscoveries of the Reformation — especially of Martin Luther — was that the word of God comes to us in the form of a book, the Bible. Luther grasped this powerful fact: God preserves the experience of salvation and holiness from generation to generation by means of a book of revelation, not a bishop in Rome.
The life-giving and life-threatening risk of the Reformation was the rejection of the pope and councils as the infallible, final authority of the church. Luther’s adversary, Sylvester Prierias, wrote, “He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic” (Luther, 193). It followed that Luther would be excluded from the Roman Catholic Church. “What is new in Luther,” Heiko Oberman says, “is the notion of absolute obedience to the Scriptures against any authorities; be they popes or councils” (Luther, 204).
This rediscovery of the word of God above all earthly powers shaped Luther and the entire Reformation. But Luther’s path to that rediscovery was a tortuous one, beginning with a lightning storm at age 21.Fearful Monk
On July 2, 1505, on the way home from law school, Luther was caught in a thunderstorm and was hurled to the ground by lightning. He cried out, “Help me, St. Anne! I will become a monk.” Fifteen days later, to his father’s dismay, Luther left his legal studies and kept his vow.
He knocked at the gate of the Augustinian hermits in Erfurt and asked the prior to accept him into the order. At 21, he became an Augustinian monk. At his first Mass two years later, Luther was so overwhelmed at the thought of God’s majesty that he almost ran away. The prior persuaded him to continue.
But this incident of fear and trembling would not be an isolated one in Luther’s life. Luther himself would later remember of these years, “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction” (Selections, 12).
Luther would not be married for another twenty years — to Katharina von Bora on June 13, 1525 — which means he lived with sexual temptations as a single man till he was 42. But “in the monastery,” he said, “I did not think about women, money, or possessions; instead my heart trembled and fidgeted about whether God would bestow his grace on me.” His all-consuming longing was to know the happiness of God’s favor. “If I could believe that God was not angry with me,” he said, “I would stand on my head for joy.”Good News: God’s Righteousness
In 1509, Luther’s beloved superior and counselor and friend, Johannes von Staupitz, allowed Luther to begin teaching the Bible. Three years later, on October 19, 1512, at the age of 28, Luther received his doctor’s degree in theology, and von Staupitz turned over to him the chair in biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg, which Luther held the rest of his life.
As Luther set to work reading, studying, and teaching Scripture from the original languages, his troubled conscience seethed beneath the surface — especially as he confronted the phrase “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:16–17. To Luther, “the righteousness of God” could only mean one thing: God’s righteous punishment of sinners. The phrase was not “gospel” to him; it was a death sentence.
But then, in the work of a moment, all Luther’s hatred for the righteousness of God turned to love. He remembers,
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” . . . And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which [the] merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”
He concludes, “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”Standing on the Book
Luther was not the pastor of the town church in Wittenberg, but he did share the preaching with his pastor friend, Johannes Bugenhagen. The record bears witness to how utterly devoted he was to the preaching of Scripture. For example, in 1522 he preached 117 sermons, the next year 137 sermons. In 1528, he preached almost 200 times, and from 1529 we have 121 sermons. So the average in those four years was one sermon every two-and-a-half days.
Over the next 28 years, Luther would preach thousands of sermons, publish hundreds of pamphlets and books, endure scores of controversies, and counsel innumerable German citizens — all to spread the good news of God’s righteousness to a people trapped in a system of their own merit. Through it all, Luther had one weapon with which to rescue this gospel from being sold in the markets of Wittenberg — Scripture. He drove out the moneychangers — the indulgence sellers — with the whip of the word of God, the Bible.
Luther said with resounding forcefulness in 1545, the year before he died, “Let the man who would hear God speak, read Holy Scripture.” Here alone, in the pages of the Bible, God speaks with final authority. Here alone, decisive authority rests. From here alone, the gift of God’s righteousness comes to hell-bound sinners.
He lived what he urged. He wrote in 1533, “For a number of years I have now annually read through the Bible twice. If the Bible were a large, mighty tree and all its words were little branches, I have tapped at all the branches, eager to know what was there and what it had to offer” (What Luther Says, Vol. 1, 83). Oberman says Luther kept to that practice for at least ten years (Luther, 173). The Bible had come to mean more to Luther than all the fathers and commentators.
Here Luther stood, and here we stand. Not on the pronouncements of popes, or the decisions of councils, or the winds of popular opinion, but on “that word above all earthly powers” — the living and abiding word of God.
For more on Martin Luther:
Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton
Tuesday, October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation with Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg.
As a preacher who speaks largely to those outside the faith, I’m always returning to the subject of darkness. I find it to be a fearful topic of conversation, but also a fruitful one.
At Halloween, the whole world is thinking about “powers of darkness,” so let me share three sentiments about darkness that I often hear in my travels. And let me hold these common beliefs up to the light for a moment to see what they might tell us.1. The Darkness Is Real
I hear this admission often, even from very secular people: “I’m not sure I believe in God, but I definitely believe in the devil.”
There’s something tangible about evil. There’s a thickness to it, a weight, a heaviness that sinks to the pit of your stomach. For some, even in spite of themselves, they begin to ascribe personality to it. We can experience an evil so outrageous, it goes beyond our biological, psychological, and sociological explanations. “We swear we’re not superstitious, we’re not, but . . . ” Faithful children of the Enlightenment — modern, scientific folk — then start speaking of personal evil and powers of darkness.
Every culture has words for this — thick concepts, developed beliefs, rituals too. Our culture is no different. All through the year we watch people dress up as grotesque monsters wreaking havoc upon civilized society. We call these grand pageants “horror films” or “slasher movies,” but whatever their name, they tap into the same realities.
Once a year, of course, the pageantry goes public — global even — with millions dressing up in macabre costumes. Halloween is the second-largest festival for retailers. What we spend on Halloween is only bettered by what we spend on Christmas. Each year we feel compelled to embody the forces we fear — some to mock, some to dabble, some for fun, some just because. Whatever the reason, Halloween is a powerful pointer to a truth we are otherwise wary of expressing: the darkness is real.2. The Darkness Is Relative
We all — believer or not — feel the weight of this profound question: How can there be a God when there’s so much evil?
In the face of real evil, can we believe in ultimate good?
I once debated the chief executive of the British Humanist Association, Andrew Copson, on the motion “The Christian God is worthy of worship.” In opposing the motion, Andrew’s speech was almost entirely taken up with a discussion of parasites. He listed dozens of them and their horrific, life-sapping capabilities. Can there be a good God when he allows such killers in his creation?
My response was simply to press into the reality of parasites. What are parasites? They are secondary nasties that attach themselves to an original, life-giving source. The life-giver comes first, the parasite comes later and spoils it. This is precisely the Bible’s picture of good and evil. There has been an original goodness spoiled by this parasitic thing called evil. All our experiences of evil are exactly that: the spoiling of something good. Health corrupted by disease, love corrupted by betrayal, order corrupted by chaos, life corrupted by death. Darkness itself is an absence or obscuring of the light.
Our very experience of evil points to the biblical story. In that story, we begin with a God of light, life, and love. Then there is a turn. We have rejected God’s light, life, and love and have therefore entered darkness, death, and disconnection. Yet, in all this, the darkness we feel does not rule out the light; it presupposes it. The darkness is relative.3. The Darkness Is Routed
I hear this sentiment everywhere I go: I guess if there’s light, you’ve got to have darkness.
People are always speaking of light and darkness as opposing forces, equally balanced and, in some senses, needing each other. It’s nonsense, obviously, but it’s managed to find near universal popularity.
I blame George Lucas. While I love Star Wars, the movies have given us the idea that light and darkness are roughly equal adversaries and that, ultimately, they balance. If you believe this, I ask you to do a little experiment. Look to the nearest light switch and try to find the accompanying darkness switch. Not there? Thought so. You see, darkness is not an opposing force to the light. It does not put up a fight against the light. When the light shines, the darkness retreats — must retreat. As it says in John’s Gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
This verse is narrating the whole Christian story. The God of light, life, and love has seen his beloved creatures plunge themselves into darkness, death, and disconnection. What does he do? Well, what does love do? Love says, Your darkness will be my darkness, your pit will be my pit, your debts will be my debts. At Christmas, Jesus entered the darkness. Through his teaching and healing, he enlightened the darkness. At the cross, he became the darkness. And in the resurrection, he conquered the darkness. The darkness is routed.After Darkness, Light
These are the lessons that Halloween can teach us: the darkness is real, it’s relative, and it’s routed. But this is why, traditionally, All Hallows Eve was followed by All Hallows Day (also known as All Saints Day). That’s how it was meant to be. In modern times, though, we seem to have lost our confidence in the day. Perhaps we don’t really believe in the triumph of the light anymore. Perhaps we have made our peace with darkness after all. If so, then it’s not just ancient folk who are stuck in the “dark ages.” We too need a true enlightenment, one that brings us genuine confidence and hope in the face of evil.
Thankfully, tomorrow is a double celebration. On October 31st, 1517 — 500 Halloweens ago! — a movement began that decisively left “the dark ages” behind. It believed in the unquestioned triumph of Christ over evil and ushered in freedom and joy. One of the slogans of the Protestant Reformation was Post tenebras lux: After darkness, light. This is the joyful conviction that can sustain us through the darkest night. If the gospel is true, then there really can be a happy Halloween.
You either trust Jesus to make you righteous or you rely on yourself. You can’t have his righteousness and rely on your own too.
On a chilly April night, twelve nuns crept silently into a fish wagon and waited for city councilor Leonard Koppe to begin driving, counting the tense minutes until their monastic vocation would end forever.
These women, smuggled from the convent in Nimbschen, Germany (in a breakout masterminded by Martin Luther), risked punishment as criminals if caught, and braved an uncertain future if successful. They were entirely dependent upon their family’s willingness to “harbor” the fugitives by receiving them back into their homes. Nuns whose families refused them would need to avail themselves of a husband, or discover some rare form of female employment by which they could independently support themselves.
Katharina von Bora, one of these nuns, found no recourse in these options, and after she experienced two failed marriage proposals, Luther found himself feeling responsible for the former nun. The feisty Katharina finally insisted that she would only marry Luther or his friend Nicolas von Amsdorf. Apparently, Luther accepted the challenge and wed the runaway nun on June 13, 1525.The Pastor’s Wife
Marriage to Luther was a social step down for Katharina, who was born into a noble family, with generations of lordly lineage. It also catapulted her into scandal and public ridicule. Erasmus of Rotterdam even predicted that the union would result in the birth of the Antichrist!
In spite of the tumultuous environment for their controversial marriage, the allegiance proved affectionate, loving, fruitful, faithful, and enduring. The couple moved into their new home, dubbed “The Black Cloister,” and Katharina pioneered a “new” calling that had been absent in medieval times — the pastor’s wife.
The morning after her wedding, Katharina initiated her new vocation by serving breakfast to the few friends that had attended the ceremony the night before. Katharina’s role as spouse of the famed Reformer, mother to six biological (and several orphaned) children, and manager of their parsonage (another innovation of the Reformation) and property became an instructive model for Protestant pastors’ wives of that era.
The Reformers firmly established this role as a high vocational calling with theological and biblical foundation and gave new dignity to Christian women by including domestic work in the ministry of the gospel, thereby transforming the ideal Christian woman from its former medieval ideal (i.e., nun).God in Every Task
For Katharina, this calling involved caring for Luther, supporting his work and travels, nurturing their children, and a wide variety of tasks involving their parsonage. She renovated the abandoned Augustinian monastery that served as their home; hosted the guests that stayed in their forty rooms; served meals to thirty or forty people regularly and banquets for more than a hundred; and created a self-sustaining household by purchasing and cultivating farmland for gardens, orchards, and animals to provide food for family and guests — as well as making bread and cheese and brewing beer.
In keeping with the Reformers’ view that all of life is spiritual, Katharina did not distinguish between “practical” and “spiritual” tasks, but found fuel for her daily work in that she served God in all tasks. Her engagement in theology was limited to her participation in the “table talks” that the Luthers hosted in their parsonage. She knew enough Latin and Scripture to engage in heated dinnertime debates, a habit Luther apparently encouraged.“I Will Stick to Christ”
In 1542 Katharina and Luther grieved the loss of their 13-year-old daughter, Magdalena, of which Luther wrote, “My wife and I should only give thanks with joy for such a happy departure and blessed end [for Magdalena] . . . yet the force of our natural love is so great that we cannot do this without weeping and grieving in our hearts or even without experiencing death ourselves. . . . Even the death of Christ . . . is unable totally to take this away, as it should.”
This grief would only be paralleled by Katharina’s grief at Martin’s own death in 1546, which she described in one of her few surviving letters:
I am in truth so very saddened that I cannot express my great heartache to any person and do not know how I am and feel. I can neither eat nor drink. Nor again sleep. If I had owned . . . an empire I would not have felt as bad had I lost it, as I did when our dear Lord God took from me — and not only from me but from the whole world — this dear and worthy man.
Katharina spent the rest of her days seeking support from Luther’s former supporters in hopes of maintaining their home and children, until she died after falling out of a wagon in December 1552. On her deathbed, she proclaimed, “I will stick to Christ as a burr to a topcoat.”
For more on Katharina von Bora:
Women and the Reformation by Kirsi Stjerna
Is religion bad for our mental health? Popular atheists often say so. Some go as far as to say that teaching children religion is really a form of abuse — at least any religion that teaches a doctrine of sin and divine punishment. They claim such teaching heaps a load of guilt on people, and then traumatizes them with the terrible fear of the threat of hell. How could this not psychologically damage people?
I’m glad the question is being raised, especially by those whose own worldview demands that people come to terms with their ultimate existential meaninglessness: that life is fundamentally a brutal fight to survive and pass on one’s genes. That love, compassion, and psychological well-being are at root naturally selected adaptations to encourage one to preserve DNA. That good and evil are only human psychological constructs. That all our frenetic activity and gene-passing is ultimately futile since sooner or later homo sapiens will undergo species extinction. And that the cosmos cares absolutely nothing about any of this.
Life is a genetic conveyor belt toward extinction — and this promotes psychological well-being? If atheism is true, it makes sense why humans are nearly universally religious: a “God delusion” would help people cope with a hopeless reality.
In fact, it’s hard to overstate how important hope is to human mental health. In this light, we need to ask what worldview gives people the most mentally healthy hope. Because the human psyche’s need for hope, while not itself a proof, is a pointer to ultimate reality.Why Things Fall Apart
To address this, first we need to begin with a different dichotomy. Drawing the line between religion and non-religion is simply a way for atheists to frame the argument to their own advantage. The line needs to be drawn between truth and falsehood.
I think we can all agree (except, perhaps, extreme postmodernists) that believing any false worldview is going to have a detrimental psychological effect on us, because our worldview shapes how we live and relate to others. So, any false worldview belief — religious or nonreligious — is going to damage us. If atheism isn’t true, and there are powerful arguments against it and growing scientific evidence weakening its claims, it still leaves a world of diverse and contradictory religions to discern between.
Asking the question about mental health really helps at this point because, again, what best addresses our psychological needs may not prove a worldview’s validity, but it’s pointing to something. And if we had to capture in one word what makes us, in all our psychological complexity, most mentally healthy, it would be this: hope. The human psyche is designed to operate on hope. The more hopeful we are, the more mentally healthy we are. The less hopeful we are, the more things fall apart for us.Healthy Pointer of Hope
Our psyches, our inner selves, our souls, are hope machines. Our psyches burn hope like our bodies burn energy. And like our bodies grow faint when we run low on energy, when we run low on hope we start feeling discouraged, even desperate. All the wonderful things that have happened to us in the past will not fuel our hope if our future looks bleak. We can be grateful for the past. But we must have hope for the future in order to keep going.
When we’re hopeful, the world is full of wonder and possibilities. We have drive and curiosity. We don’t want to waste our lives. We take on challenges and see adversity as something to be overcome. But when we run low on hope, the world becomes a fearful, threatening place, full of chaotic futility. Hopelessness saps our desire and drive. It robs us of interest and appetite. We just want to curl up and protect our inner selves, our souls.
This makes the mental health of hope a powerful pointer to reality. It means we are designed to be hopeful. And hope is what we feel about the future. But the only way we can have hope for the future is if we believe the future is promising. Which means, we are designed to believe in promises.Designed to Live by Faith
In other words, we are designed to be creatures who live by faith. And this is where atheism really falters as a pointer to ultimate reality. All it has to offer by way of mental health is autonomy. You’re free to do as you wish, but you must build your autonomous house, in the words of Bertand Russell, on “the unyielding foundation of universal despair.” This does not work for us psychologically. Those who believe God is a delusion, then, must construct some kind of hope delusion, or suicide will become increasingly appealing.
What keeps us going is hope in a future fueled by promises about the future. We, by nature, are not designed to “live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). So, from a general human-mental-health standpoint, the issue becomes, What promises give us the most healthy, robust hope?We Long for Redemption
That question is not hard to answer. It courses through us every day, and runs through the myths, legends, stories, songs, and poems we have loved most in all cultures and in every era: redemption. We long for good to triumph over evil. We long for justice to triumph over injustice. And we long for personal forgiveness and freedom from guilt — not guilt that man-made religion has heaped on us, but guilt from the depravity inside us and the things we have done, said, and thought that we would be mortified for anyone else to find out.
The doctrines of sin and divine punishment are only psychologically damaging if they are false. But if they are true — if God exists, and we are sinners, and God is going to bring the triumph of good over evil and the triumph of justice over injustice, including giving us sinners what we deserve — they are not damaging, but they are urgent necessities.
And no religion or system of beliefs in the history of mankind addresses human depravity and injustice in ways that so align with our experience of reality — while at the same time holding out such hope to us in such wonderful, almost incredible, precious promises — as Christianity.
Christianity names us as what we already know we are: sinners. It tells us what the wages of our sin deserves — and that our sins are even worse than we thought because our Creator is far holier than we thought. It tells us that our Creator is not only holy and perfectly just, but that he is gracious beyond our comprehension and has made a way for us to escape his righteous judgment against us by himself paying the debt of our sin and himself absorbing his wrath, making it possible for us to have what every one of us longs for: redemption and eternal life, free from sin and in full, restored fellowship with our Creator and Redeemer.
Christianity turns out to be the greatest, most beautiful story of redemption ever told. It addresses all our greatest and deepest needs and longings. It offers all of us the most hope, no matter who we are and how horrible we’ve been. When holistically believed and consistently lived, Christianity produces the most mentally healthy people history has ever known.Heart of Mental Health
The heart of our mental health is found here: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23–24).
And here: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31–32).
And here: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5–6).
And here: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).
And here: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1).
And in hundreds of other hope-giving promises in the Bible.Unhinged from God
It’s not religion that damages us; it’s unbelief. Things fall apart for us when we disbelieve God because the foundation of our hope erodes. Unhinged from God, our hearts, minds, and bodies are restless. The more unbelief is operating in us, the more disordered and mentally unhealthy we become. But the more we trust God, the more we abound in hope — no matter what our circumstances are, no matter how bleak things look at the moment (Romans 15:13).
The human heart is designed to love God most, and is never happier than when it does. The human soul is designed to find its rest in the promises God himself makes to us. The human psyche is designed to find its security in the unconditional acceptance and love of its Creator. And the human body is designed to work best when the heart, soul, and mind are functioning in a harmonious love for and trust in God.
The proven path to our soundest mental health is a robust, holistic trust, in everything and every circumstance, in the triune Christian God.
The Bible calls husbands to lead their wives. But where should you go for help if you’ve never seen anyone model Christlike leadership in the home?
Lucas Cranach the Younger’s “Der Weinberg des Herrn” (1569) on display at St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg, Germany, depicts the Wittenberg Reformers laboring side by side as farmers on a hillside, tending the growing shoots and harvesting the crops. Although their labor is hard, the work of these co-laboring Reformers is decidedly fruitful.
Alongside the renowned Martin Luther and the erudite Philip Melanchthon and many others, Johannes Bugenhagen, pastor of St. Mary’s Church, wears a light-colored robe while he hoes the earth. While not nearly as famous or prolific as Luther and Melanchthon, Bugenhagen worked steadily alongside them, both at St. Mary’s and later at the University of Wittenberg.Fourfold Reformer
Though principally a pastor, Johannes Bugenhagen — also known as Johannes Pomeranius — served the Reformation in what Kurt Hendel condenses into four distinct roles: a theologian, an exegete, a pastor, and a social reformer and church organizer (Johannes Bugenhagen, xi).
As a theologian, Bugenhagen was largely self-taught; he had little formal theological training, but he read extensively from Scripture and the patristic fathers. With particular facility in Latin, Bugenhagen eventually received a doctorate in theology from the University of Wittenberg and held a lectureship in theology there. Exegetically, Bugenhagen is perhaps best remembered for his 1524 commentary on the Psalms, though he also produced commentaries on Jeremiah and Matthew and a translation of the Bible into Low German.
Since Bugenhagen’s primary vocation was that of parish pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg for three decades, much of his daily work was pastoral in nature. Of all of his roles, however, Bugenhagen seemed particularly adept at structuring young Reformation churches and the urban life surrounding them.Managing a Movement
Bugenhagen’s skill at constructing new ecclesiastical organizations for parishes, cities, and regions joining the Reformation was, in fact, more than just a role for him; Walter Ruccius describes Bugenhagen’s administrative work as one of two particular gifts. Alongside a fierce “loyalty to what he conceived to be the truth,” writes Ruccius, Bugenhagen had “the gift of order” (John Bugenhagen Pomeranus, 3). Bugenhagen used his “gift of order” to create robust social and governing structures for new Reformation communities.
In particular, Bugenhagen’s Kirchenordnungen, or “Church Orders,” detail the interdependence between political bodies and local churches and the organization within individual churches. The ability to share and modify these civic and ecclesial structures efficiently was key to the rapid spread of the Reformation first in Germany and then in Scandinavia.
As a theologically minded man with exceptional organizational capacities, Bugenhagen served the Reformation most profoundly by means of the intensely practical structures he engineered and implemented. While the routines of the Kirchenordungen may seem bizarre to our modern conceptions of church-and-state relationships, Bugenhagen’s work testifies to the value of administrative gifts to spread the gospel.Friendship with Luther
In the midst of the writing, organizing, designing, and traveling, Bugenhagen maintained close relationships with the Wittenberg Reformers as their friend and pastor. He was especially close with Luther. Bugenhagen married Luther and Katherina von Bora, baptized their children, and served as Luther’s confessor.
When Bugenhagen gave the sermon at Luther’s funeral on February 22, 1546, therefore, he feared that he would “not be able to utter a word because of his tears.” And after thanking God for Luther’s boldness to challenge corruption in the Roman Catholic Church even in the face of “persecution and slander,” Bugenhagen prayed, “Protect your poor Christendom. . . . Preserve in your church faithful and good preachers” (“A Christian Sermon”).Vineyard Polemics
As Bugenhagen prayed for faithfulness and endurance in the work of preaching, so Cranach’s “Der Weinberg des Herrn” depicts the Wittenberg Reformers as a group of evangelists and preachers at work together to tend and grow the church into maturity for Christ’s sake.
Nonetheless both the rhetoric of Bugenhagen and Cranach’s depictions of the church also tend to be highly polemical. On the other side of the hill in “Der Weinberg,” Cranach depicts the Roman church authorities wantonly destroying vines, burning crops, and filling wells with rocks. And Bugenhagen’s descriptions of the Roman church are the verbal equivalent of Cranach’s painting: in Luther’s funeral sermon, Bugenhagen complains against “the impudent, atrocious, great blasphemies of the adversaries and the obdurate priests and monks” and the “grievous pope,” while he invokes apocalyptic languages to compare the Church of Rome to Babylon.
But the attack in Cranach’s altarpiece and Bugenhagen’s rhetoric do point to what is at stake in the Reformation and the apocalyptic urgency that the Reformers felt: the church is a vineyard that belongs to Jesus. If Christ were to return suddenly to signal the end of time, an event Bugenhagen was convinced would happen soon, Bugenhagen had every intention to be found hard at work “in the vineyard of the Lord” alongside his Wittenberg companions.