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Reformation 500 Sermon: Stand on Your Head for Joy

Mon, 10/30/2017 - 1:00pm

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.

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Don’t Waste the Darkness: Three Truths Halloween Teaches Us

Mon, 10/30/2017 - 10:00am

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.

Wholly Lean on Jesus’s Name

Mon, 10/30/2017 - 2:00am

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.

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The Runaway Nun: Katharina von Bora (1499–1552)

Mon, 10/30/2017 - 1:00am

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

The Proven Path to Mental Health

Sun, 10/29/2017 - 8:03pm

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.

How Do I Know If I’m Loving My Wife Well?

Sun, 10/29/2017 - 8:00pm

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?

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The Administrative Pastor: Johannes Bugenhagen (1485–1558)

Sun, 10/29/2017 - 1:01pm

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.

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Sat, 10/28/2017 - 8:01pm

The Reformers didn’t just protest; they sang. The Protestant Reformation, which began in earnest 500 years ago this week, didn’t just give birth to preaching and writing, but it inspired music and unleashed song.

That God declares us rebels fully righteous on the sole basis of his Son, through faith alone — such news is too good not to sing. And that our Creator and Redeemer himself has spoken into our world, and preserved his speech for us in a Book, to be illumined by his own Spirit — such news is too good not to craft into verse. Perhaps the greatest evidence that the Reformation released real joy in freeing captives from the bondage of man-made religion is that its theology made for such a good marriage with music. The Reformation sang.

Battle Hymn of the Reformation

Leading the way not just in word, but in song, was Martin Luther. He wrote nearly forty hymns, many of which he composed not only the words but even the music. His most famous, of course, “A Mighty Fortress,” often is called “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” The song embodies with strength and gusto the very spirit of the Reformation, breaking free from the flaccidity and poverty of medieval theology with rich God-confidence.

The hymn takes its inspiration mainly from the first two verses of Psalm 46, along with the refrain of verses 7 and 11.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear . . . (Psalm 46:1–2)

The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. (Psalm 46:7, 11)

Psalm 46 opens with God as “refuge and strength,” and the battle hymn opens with God as “mighty fortress” — literally, a strong or unshakable castle. Line three is “help in trouble”; stanza three is “we will not fear.”

But that’s where the parallels end. Rather than a mere hymnodic expression of the psalm, we do better to call it a Christian hymn inspired by it. What’s generic in Psalm 46, Luther makes specific, and Christian. He names the personal agent behind the trouble: “our ancient foe,” the devil. He puts a human face and person to the rescue: “Christ Jesus it is he.” And the hymn apexes with the glorious Himalayan peaks of Romans 8.

How Did We Get the English?

Perhaps at this point, or sometime in the past, you’ve wondered about the English version we sing today, Hey, didn’t Luther speak German? Who brought this powerful hymn into English, and how faithful is it to Luther’s original?

The hymn came into English as early as ten years after Luther composed it, but the version most of us sing today was translated by Frederick Hedge more than 300 years later, in 1853. It is by no means a literal translation of the original, understandably taking certain licenses for the sake of meter and rhyme. Add to that the fact that Hedge was a Unitarian minister — meaning he believed in God’s oneness but not threeness. In other words, he was no Trinitarian. He believed Jesus was fully human but not God, inspired by God but not his eternal divine Son.

To give Hedge his due, his English version well embodies the mood and major themes of Luther’s original. “Mighty fortress,” admittedly less familiar imagery for us, captures Psalm 46 better than what comes to our minds today when we think of a “castle.” What’s in view in the psalm is first strength, not beauty. Think Helm’s Deep, not Disneyland. And we can thank Hedge for his powerful quatrain, alluding with Luther to Luke 21:16–18, at the finale:

Let goods and kindred go
This mortal life also
The body they may kill
God’s truth abideth still

What the Unitarian Lost

However, we shouldn’t be too surprised that a Unitarian translator might miss some things, both small and large — some intentionally and others unavoidably, given the nature of translating lyrics as opposed to prose. To help you better enjoy the power of Luther’s original, let’s note seven variants, thanks to a “woodenly literal” translation by John Piper, reviewed by German pastor Matthias Lohmann. (The full translation is posted below.)

1. Offense, Not Just Defense

Hedge’s second line says God is “a bulwark never failing.” What we miss from the original is that God, our Mighty Fortress, is not only defensive but also offensive — literally, “a good defense and weapon.” He not only protects but leads us forward into victory.

2. Help from Every Misery

In crafting his poetic lines, Hedge says God is our helper “amid the flood of mortal ills.” Luther’s original is more sweeping: “he helps us get free from every misery.” This is the major theme we see emerge: Luther’s is stronger.

3. Luther’s Wonderful Extreme Statements

Speaking of every, Hedge’s translation consistently softens Luther’s extreme statements. Which means that as strong as “A Mighty Fortress” is in our English, it is even stronger in its original form. Not only does our God, our Mighty Fortress, free us from “every misery,” but “With our power nothing is accomplished / We are very soon lost” (compare with “Did we in our own strength confide / Our striving would be losing”). So also, Satan “does not do anything to us” is a more forceful claim than simply “his rage we can endure.” And related to our “goods and kindred” (literally, “goods, honor, child, and wife”), Luther asserts, “They will have no profit,” which Hedge leaves out altogether and fills the gap with “God’s truth abideth still.”

What’s lost in Hedge softening Luther’s edges? Luther’s extremes better capture not only God’s extreme fullness and power, but also our extreme emptiness and powerlessness.

4. God Works All According to Plan

We said above that the hymn culminates with Romans 8. Not only is Satan utterly unsuccessful in his efforts against us (Romans 8:31), but in the final stanza, Luther alludes to Romans 8:28, with Ephesians 1:11: “[Christ] is with us according to plan.” Hedge again says less (“Through him who with us sideth”), opting just to capture “with us” but not the divine sovereignty of “according to plan.”

5. The World Could Be Much Worse

Hedge’s “though” at the outset stanza three introduces a subtle difference worth noting. “Though this world with devils filled” concedes a magnitude to the evil presently at work in our world that Luther did not. He did not think the world was full of devils. Devils enough, for sure, but not a world full of them. Luther says “even if.” He raises a hypothetical to make a case for God-confident faith now. “Even if the world were full of devils” — and it is not full of devils, but just one — but even if this were the case, “We would not thus fear so very much / We will nevertheless succeed.”

Luther aims to conquer fear, and feed faith, in the present by asserting that even if our plight was much worse, we would still be utterly secure in Christ. How much more should we now rest secure in his unshakable sovereignty!

6. No Other God Than Jesus

Most significantly, the Unitarian drops Luther’s reference to Jesus as God. Hedge inserts “from age to age the same” in place of “there is no other God.” This is the greatest of Luther’s extreme statements that doesn’t make Hedge’s cut, and this is the single biggest oversight or alteration. Might it not be fair to assume alteration since Hedge was Unitarian?

It is gloriously true that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), but that’s not what Luther had in his original. Rather, it seems to have made the Unitarian squirm, and he sought to rescue this otherwise strong hymn from what he thought was Trinitarian error.

7. His Kingdom Is for Us

Finally, Hedge’s last line (“His kingdom is forever”) loses Luther’s “for us” (literally, “The kingdom must remain for us”). It’s a small loss, yes, but sweet and important. This is the great for-us-ness which the Reformation so wonderfully recaptured. In Christ, we not only catch a glimpse of God’s spectacular kingdom, but we’re invited in. We become part of the reign from the inside (even, in some real way, reigning with him, 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 20:6) — in a kingdom that not only remains forever but is for us, for our eternal good and everlasting joy.

So, this weekend, and into the future, as we enjoy Hedge’s admirable translation — for which we should be thankful — we can rest assured that Luther’s original is even stronger, and even better. And Psalm 46 and Romans 8 are even better, and even stronger, than what Luther could capture in verse. The God we sing about will always be stronger, and better, than even our best songs can say.

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
A “Woodenly Literal” Translation
by John Piper, with Matthias Lohmann

A strong castle is our God,
A good defense and weapon.
He helps us become free from every misery
That has now affected us.
The old evil enemy
Is now in earnestness with his intents.
Great Power and much deception
Is his cruel armor.
On earth is not its likeness.

With our power nothing is accomplished.
We are very soon lost.
The right man fights for us
Whom God himself has chosen.
Do you ask who that is?
His name is Jesus Christ,
The Lord of hosts,
And there is no other God.
The battlefield he must hold.

Even if the world were full of Devils
And would want to swallow us up,
We would not thus fear so very much.
We will nevertheless succeed.
The prince of this world,
How bitterly he might pretend to be,
Nevertheless will not do anything to us
Because he is judged.
A little word can fell him.

That word they shall let stand
And will have no thanks for it.
He is with us according to plan
With his Spirit and gifts.
If they take the body,
Goods, honor, child, and wife,
Let them go away.
They will have no profit.
The kingdom must remain for us.

The Happy Professor: Zacharius Ursinus (1534–1583)

Sat, 10/28/2017 - 1:00am

The opening of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) makes one of the most ringing affirmations of faith in all of Christian history:

Q: What is your only comfort in life and death? 

A: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

The Heidelberg Catechism was the product of a team of authors commissioned by the German elector Frederick III, a devout Protestant prince during the early decades of the German Reformation. Chief among the catechism’s authors was University of Heidelberg professor Zacharius Ursinus.

Humble Reformer

Ursinus was a student of Philip Melanchthon, who himself was one of the key disciples of the great German Reformer Martin Luther. Luther had died in 1546. As a young man in the 1550s, Ursinus journeyed through many of the major capitals of the European Reformation, meeting Geneva’s John Calvin, among other key Reformed leaders.

During this era, German Reformers were deeply divided over theological questions such as the exact nature of the Lord’s Supper. When the humble Ursinus was called to become a professor at Heidelberg in 1561, he declared, “Oh, that I could remain hidden in a corner!” But God was calling Ursinus to Heidelberg to help secure the legacy of the Reformation.

The Heidelberg Comforter

The Heidelberg Catechism was published anonymously, but most observers today credit Ursinus with taking a lead role in writing it. Its emphasis on Calvinist doctrine made it one of the most broadly influential catechisms of the Reformation era.

The Heidelberg Catechism was quickly translated into a number of other languages, including English in 1572. It would be surpassed in notoriety in the English-speaking world only by the Westminster Confession of Faith, produced in England during the next century. One of the reasons the Heidelberg Catechism was so successful is that it used unifying language about disputed issues, such as those related to the Lord’s Supper. Ursinus did not wish to further exacerbate divisions among Protestants.

Befitting Ursinus’s Calvinist convictions, however, the catechism paints a grim picture of the state of humanity outside of Christ. In question and answer (Q&A) 5 of the catechism, Ursinus tells us (based on a host of supporting biblical references) that we are “inclined by nature” to hate God and our neighbor. Q&A 8 asks whether we are “so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good.” Ursinus answers that yes, we are that corrupt, “unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”

Conversely, a life redeemed by God is one of holiness, contentedness, and unspeakable joy into eternity. The comfort contained in the first question comes from understanding the great depth of our sin, the great rescue Christ brings from the “misery” and wrath we face because of that sin, and the great thankfulness to God that the knowledge of our deliverance brings. Ursinus explains that our “new nature” in Christ is a “heartfelt joy in God through Christ, and a love and delight to live according to the will of God in good works.” Joy in our redemption, to Ursinus, is the foundation of holy living.

Legacy of Joy

In spite of Ursinus’s efforts to unify the feuding Protestant factions, Frederick III’s successor removed him and other Calvinist professors from the Heidelberg faculty in the 1570s. Ursinus found work at a Reformed academy not far from Heidelberg. He died in 1583, at age 48.

Through the Heidelberg Catechism, and through the extensive lectures he published defending the theology behind the catechism, Ursinus left a rich repository of biblical instruction for future generations of believers. Ursinus’s teachings still inspire much joy today, not least because of the great work God did through him and the whole host of Reformers.

For more on Zacharius Ursinus:

The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism by Kevin DeYoung

An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism by Lyle D. Bierma

Prisoner Number 2491: The Inspiring Story of the First Nazi Martyr

Fri, 10/27/2017 - 8:01pm

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in London when he heard of Paul Schneider’s death. He gathered his nieces and nephews to tell them.

“Children, you must never forget the name of Paul Schneider. He is our first martyr.”

Schneider, like Martin Niemöller and Bonhoeffer himself, were members of the Confessing Church, pastors who would not bow the knee to Nazism, but confessed allegiance to Christ at any cost.

And Schneider was the first of them to seal his gospel witness with his blood.

To Rebuild a Heartbroken Humanity

At the end of World War I, Paul Schneider returned from the western front to a Germany in ruins. It changed the trajectory of his life. He had entered the army with plans to become a doctor. Now he was confronted with a brokenness that went beyond a doctor’s skill to heal. He recorded,

My discharge to the home front . . . found me determined to devote myself to the study of theology because here alone was power to rebuild a heartbroken nation and a heartbroken humanity.

As he prepared to graduate from divinity school, however, Schneider underwent a spiritual crisis. The demythologized gospel he had embraced did not leave him anything truly comforting to proclaim before a hurting people. He postponed his licensing exam and traveled to Berlin. There, in a city mission, Schneider encountered believers whose ministry was marked by the spiritual reality he desired.

Here there are people who claim that they not only know Jesus and seek to follow his teaching, but possess him as the living power of their lives. . . . Here I must say to myself, “You are not yet such a child of God.”

Through the witness of these evangelical believers, Schneider was confronted with his own need for new life. He pled,

May I step before the congregation tomorrow with the message of advent and the joy of advent? . . . Oh God in heaven, give me the gift of faith. . . . I have to put a question mark behind everything that I do. You, God, can pour out your Spirit of love on me so the question mark would turn into a joyous “Yes and Amen.”

God heard his prayer. His future wife confided in her diary, “Eternal life entered his soul, and he was filled with great joy.” Paul Schneider possessed Jesus Christ as the living power of his life.

Radiant Man of Truth

Enlivened by this experience of redemption, Schneider’s characteristic zeal was conscripted into the service of the full gospel. A friend described him as “a man of radiant warm-heartedness and a man of ultimate-truthfulness.” This vital blend was immediately apparent in his preaching. He no longer gave question marks empty of comfort or conviction; instead his sermons now resounded with calls to confess the biblical Christ and promises to salve suffering hearts. Preaching the glory of Christ in calming the storm, Schneider declared,

But now you are challenged to confess and bear witness dear evangelical church. . . . We are anxious and we are afraid. . . . We do not see how the poor, unprotected little boat of the church can be preserved among the powers and the forces of the world. But then we must remember; in this boat the Lord is with us and . . . soon he will be up!

Comforting Staff, Sweet Burden

Ordained in 1926, Schneider took over his father’s church in Hochelheim. With this income, he could bring home his “Gretel,” Margaret Dietrich. Paul and Margaret became a remarkable support for one another — “both a comforting staff and a sweet burden” — she wrote. In 1935, while he was detained by the Gestapo, she encouraged him,

I am satisfied with the decision you have made. I know well enough how something bothers you when you can’t do it wholeheartedly. You know that on the outside I can hold my own, but there are also tears I have not cried. May God give us both strength to walk in his ways.

Later, in 1937, he exhorted her from the concentration camp at Buchenwald,

I foresee a time when every sincere Christian will be compelled to openly confess and freely declare their faith. It will soon be your turn on account of our [six] children. . . . God will give you strength, my love, to do the right thing.

Witness of Pastor Schneider

The road to Buchenwald wound through several years of intensifying conflict with the Gestapo. They labeled his preaching of biblical truth “psychologically deviant” and recommended, “This man belongs in the concentration camps.” Of his two years in Buchenwald, Prisoner #2491 spent eighteen months in solitary confinement because he continued holding devotions in the barracks.

He confided to a camp orderly, “There is no spot on me that has not been beaten black and blue.” They sicced dogs on him, they beat him with bull whips, they fed him a regular diet of the cardiac depressant strophanthin, which eventually — with a huge dose — killed him. They gave Margarete 24 hours to collect the body, nailing his coffin shut so that she could not see what he had suffered.

Despite heavy observance by Nazi officials, Schneider’s funeral attracted hundreds of Confessing Church pastors and served as a rallying point for their boldness in proclamation. Four pillars of Schneider’s confession can likewise encourage us in our own Christian witness.

1. Take Strength in the Sovereignty of God

Drawing from Scripture, from Calvin’s theological writings, and from the Heidelberg Catechism, confidence in the sovereignty of God sustained this suffering pastor in the sacrifice of praise. Rather than put his hope in avoiding suffering, Schneider wrote, “Certainly we still live in this world, and with this suffering people, and also share its sufferings.” He continued, “But we have a commission and a calling from another world and our citizenship is there. And we know that in spite of everything, this world will one day be victorious. Therefore, we will be cheerful in tribulation.”

2. Navigate by the North Star of Scripture

Gretel wrote to Paul in prison to ask, “What do you do all day?” His reply was a window into his endurance in the truth: “I am a pupil in the school of God’s Word.” This prioritization of the biblical text marked his entire ministry. Viewed against the blitzkrieg of social, economic, and political changes contemporary with his pastorate, it is remarkable that every one of Schneider’s existing sermons is an exposition of the biblical text. Helmet Golwitzer calls this commitment to exegesis the “liberating effect of text sermons.”

The biblical text should not merely be a motto placed at the head of the sermon . . . but should be in concrete control of the preacher. The preacher’s subordination to this text frees him from all other authorities; from ecclesiastical authorities — that was the liberating experience of the Reformation, and from political authorities — that was the liberating experience at the time of Hitler’s dictatorship.

3. Draw Greater Strength from Deeper Joy

The Nazis deployed a program called Strength through Joy. This was an attempt to shear away the “weakness” bred by “fear of death and a bad conscience” inherent within a Judeo-Christian worldview. In its place, Nazism announced “a joyous message that liberated men from those things that burdened their life.”

Schneider reclaimed this idea of strength through joy, arguing that a superior strength was available to Christian believers because they could access a superior joy: “We know a joy that rests on the deepest foundation and has given hundreds of thousands of believing Christians the power to sacrifice their lives. . . . Our faith brings a greater joy and therefore a greater strength.” The Confessing Church was armed to out-rejoice — and therefore to overcome — the very ones who were killing them.

4. Settle on the Seriousness of Eternity

The conviction that exerted a formative impact on her husband’s ministry, Margarete remembered, was “his recognition that each individual can be lost for eternity.” The light of eternity provided a much-needed perspective before the Nazi demand that all Germans surrender their heavenly citizenship for a place in “the single, eternal life of this world.” Armed with an eternal perspective, Schneider refused to allow godless men, however powerful in his present moment, to define what the real church was, who the real Christ was, or how true love and unity behaved.

This weight of eternal lostness extended to the horror of the concentration camp. It sounded over the parade grounds, morning after morning, from a small window in solitary confinement. It was recorded by an inmate who found Margarete after the war in order to tell her what she needed to know, and would have already known, about her husband:

Every morning Schneider’s voice was heard ringing out loudly and clearly from the solitary confinement building, almost across the whole square, when tens of thousands had lined up for roll call: “Our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world to save us from our sins. If we have faith in him, we are put right with God. We need not fear what man may do to us because we, through Christ, belong to the kingdom of God. . . . Our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, has promised that we, by faith in him, may participate in his resurrection. He said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes in me shall never die.’ Accept the Lord Jesus as your Savior, and God will receive you as his child.”

Shake It Off? Secular Songs on Sunday Morning

Fri, 10/27/2017 - 10:00am

In many modern churches, it has become common practice to feature a secular song at the beginning or end of a worship service. Pop music — including Taylor Swift, U2, Coldplay, and countless others — now functions as an outreach tool in Sunday morning gatherings. Whether it’s singing the popular Frozen anthem “Let it Go” in a series on anger, or AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” before a gospel presentation, many churches are expressing complex biblical themes and ideas through content that is familiar and approachable, especially for unbelievers.

This practice is, more often than not, an attempt to soften the culture shock of entering a church for the first time. For many lost people, the presence of any music in church can be confusing, and a familiar song from the radio can establish familiarity and cohesion between two life experiences. This motivation represents sincere thoughtfulness on the part of church leaders who hope to welcome unbelievers into their congregations. But it comes with a cost.

Worship Guidelines

As Scripture makes abundantly clear, certain qualities should define our worship, including our times of corporate singing.

The Bible calls us to worship with “reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28) and frequently reminds us that we should worship God alone (Exodus 20:4–5; 2 Kings 17:38; 1 Corinthians 10:14). The biblical authors describe worship as sacrificial and separate from the patterns of this world (Romans 12:1–2; Colossians 3:2–5). And they command us to sing his praises (Psalm 95:1–2; Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19).

Beyond these guidelines, the specifics of style and form can vary greatly; there is more than one right way to worship in church. Nevertheless, every choice we make — from style to production to lyrics — can drastically shape our faith.

Where’s the Glory?

Among the many purposes of corporate worship, two primary ones are to glorify God and form God’s people into Jesus’s image. When we plan our gatherings with this foundation in mind, we are able to more effectively shape the content of our church services. A responsible leader should always seek to minimize distractions and provide an atmosphere conducive to corporate worship’s core purposes. Singing Katy Perry songs, regardless of the intention, will almost always move our minds somewhere other than the glory of God.

In its proper context, secular music has a lot of merit: we’re created in the image of a creative God, and music can often express this creativity without being explicitly about God. But these songs rarely raise our affections for God. It is difficult to find merit in an element of Sunday-morning worship that neither moves us to glorify God nor molds us into his likeness.

But this is only one part of the problem.

Paradox of Participation

Let’s say, for example, that we include a Taylor Swift song at the beginning of our worship service. Would we ask the congregation to stand during this song? Would we put the lyrics on the screen? Would we encourage people to sing along? If we answer yes to any of these questions, we have gravely misunderstood one of the most important functions of worship: formation.

Declaring our beliefs in song has a unique and powerful effect on our hearts. How then are we forming our hearts as we sing “Shake It Off”? If we treat this song like a normal worship song (e.g., lyrics on screen, congregation standing and singing along), we allow something other than the glory of God to shape us. Can you see the dilemma? Whether we sing Taylor Swift on Sunday morning has very little to do with the quality of her music. It’s instead about recognizing that our worship shapes us, for better or for worse.

But what if we take special precautions to distinguish the secular music from the rest of our songs on Sunday morning? Calling this song “the special” and having the congregation sit and watch solves a lot of these problems, but it introduces another equally troubling dilemma. When we separate the secular song and worship set as distinct elements, we inevitably turn the former into a performance. The congregation becomes only an audience, and the musicians their entertainers; leadership gives way to theatricality and we exchange humility for showmanship.

Set Apart

So therein lies the paradox: no matter how we choose to treat this song, we end up violating the biblical concept of worship. We must conclude that, despite the genuine good these songs might do for lost people seeking to enter the church, the spiritual threat is far greater than the potential reward.

Though culture can often prove helpful in shaping the way we worship, we should never let conformity to culture compromise our witness. As we seek to refine our worship practices, may we gladly embrace our identity as God’s set-apart people (1 Peter 2:9–10), and in doing so proclaim his excellencies to a listening world.

Praise the Lord!
For it is good to sing praises to our God;
     for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting. (Psalm 147:1)

Formed with the Flick of His Finger

Fri, 10/27/2017 - 2:00am

The world around us cries out with the glory of God. We just need to linger long enough to see it.

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The First Calvinist: Theodore Beza (1519–1605)

Fri, 10/27/2017 - 1:00am

Theodore Beza was born into the lower nobility of France and given an excellent education there in preparation for his career as a lawyer. In God’s good providence, at the age of nine he was sent to study under Melchior Wolmar, a German Lutheran, who not only taught him Greek and Latin, but also taught Beza of Christ. Beza said of the beginning of Wolmar’s tutelage that it was “the beginning of all the good things which I have received from that time forward and which I trust to receive hereafter in my future life.”

Calvin’s Co-Pilot

After completing his education, though, Beza led a dissolute life in Paris for about a decade until he was bedridden and near death for a time. Then, in 1548, God brought him to his senses. Beza returned to his commitment to Jesus and fled France for the Reformed cause in Switzerland. He began teaching pastors in Lausanne, and in 1558 was called to Geneva to serve under John Calvin. Beza and Calvin developed a close bond in the last years of the latter’s life. Calvin wrote that he cared “deeply for Beza, who loves me more than a brother and honors me more than a father.”

Apart from a few trips outside the Swiss city-state, Beza spent the rest of his life in Geneva — often under trying conditions. He never knew if Catholics would invade the city and slaughter its inhabitants, and he had to battle the rising tide of Lutheran polemics against the Reformed Protestants.

Geneva’s Defender

Beza left his mark on the Reformation in several ways. First, on him fell the burden of leadership of the Genevan Reformation after Calvin died in 1564. For the next forty years, Beza served as pastor and professor, traveled to France to aid the beleaguered Protestants there, and debated Catholics and Lutherans.

John Calvin was undoubtedly the father of Calvinism, but Beza very well may have been the first Calvinist. He also gave form to what we now call Calvinism by explaining and defending the biblical doctrines Calvin had rediscovered. Through his teaching and writing ministry, Beza defended the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as essential to a sinner’s justification, he explained the justice of double predestination, and he expounded the comfort a believer receives from Christ’s definite atonement.

In addition to his pastoral leadership, Beza gave the young French-speaking Reformed church necessary literature to aid its growth. During his lifetime, Beza was best known for his work on the New Testament, culminating in his Annotations of the New Testament. This linguistic masterpiece included the Greek text of the New Testament, the Latin Vulgate translation, and Beza’s original Latin translation. Beza added his textual footnotes and explanatory notes, demonstrating that the Reformed faith was distinctly biblical. His notes in the Annotations influenced the 1560 English Bible translation, the Geneva Bible, which became the most popular Bible translation among the Puritans. The Greek text Beza published was that used by the translators of the 1611 King James Bible.

Under God’s Mighty Hand

Beza inherited Calvin’s biblical vision of God’s sweet sovereignty over all the affairs of human life. After Calvin’s death, Beza lived through tumultuous times, experiencing trials that would force him to trust in his Lord. In 1587, for instance, when it looked like Geneva was about to be overrun by Catholics, Beza encouraged his congregation to trust in their heavenly Father’s kind providence:

“This doctrine is full of excellent comfort. For thereby we understand, that by the power of our God, the rage of that hungry lion is abated and bridled, and that God will never suffer him to do anything against his children, which shall not be to their good and profit, as the apostle tells us (Romans 8:28) and also teaches us by his own example (2 Corinthians 12:17).”

Indeed, he told his listeners, our only hope is that our God is sovereign — so sovereign that he can save us from our sins when we are utterly dead spiritually:

“There is in our nature nothing but most desperate and most obstinate rebellion, until the Spirit of God do drive away, first, the darkness of our understanding, which cannot, nor will not of itself, so much as think upon the things of God (2 Corinthians 3:5) and that secondly it correct the forwardness of our will, which is an enemy of God, and of whatsoever is truly good (Romans 5:10 and 8:7).”

Beza saw that because God reigns and has all power, Christians can hope in his goodness both to save them and to protect them through the dangers of their earthly pilgrimage.

If Only

Thu, 10/26/2017 - 8:03pm

If only I could find my soulmate to marry. If only my mate felt like my soulmate. If only I could find that friend who really understands and accepts me for who I am. If only I could pursue the career I really want. If only my church were more [fill in the blank]. If only I weren’t so [fill in the blank]. If only I lived [fill in the blank]. If only I had [fill in the blank]. If only my family [fill in the blank]. If only [fill in the blank] hadn’t happened to me.

What are your if only’s? We all have them, because if only’s are a form of regret, and regrets are simply unavoidable in our experience — though not all of them are unavoidable. Some are nothing more than delusions.

Either way, we must take care with our regrets, because, whether based on something real or fantastic, they can erode our faith in God by subtly shifting our faith from God to our regrets — and that is truly regrettable.

Real Regrets

When I say that some of our regrets are unavoidable, here’s what I mean:

1. We are sinners who, even as regenerate believers in Jesus, are committing or omitting sin in greater or lesser degrees all the time, and this scorns God and damages ourselves and others to greater or lesser degrees.

2. We live our lives intertwined and interacting with other sinners whose God-scorning sin affects or damages us in greater or lesser degrees.

3. We live in an age riddled with futility, so things are always breaking down or not working out the way they should (Romans 8:20).

4. And we live in a world under the power of the evil one, so we are frequently affected by the oppression and opposition of demonic forces (1 John 5:19).

This means we all have legitimate regrets for past occurrences that have detrimentally influenced who we are and where we are. It’s right to regret ways we have harmed or been harmed by others. And it certainly isn’t wrong to feel some if only’s over certain effects of the fall that we or others have suffered, resulting in terrible grief and loss.

There are numerous appropriate reasons we might wish things could have been or could now be different. And having a robust belief in the sovereignty of God does not necessarily preclude our feeling regret. Paul even begins Romans 9, the Bible’s most clear defense of God’s sovereignty in election, with an anguished “if only” lament over his fellow Israelites’ rejection of Jesus as the Christ (Romans 9:1–3). It’s just that confidence in God’s providence allows us to faithfully rest in God’s power and wisdom to work all things together for his children’s good, even if, like Paul, on a human level we really wish things were different (Romans 8:28).

Fantasy Regrets

But not all our "if only" regrets are legitimate and unavoidable. Some of our if only’s are rooted in imagined ideals or fantasies we believe because we’ve absorbed messages from our family, friends, and cultures (or indulged selfish desires).

Fantasy Ideals are not as easy to spot as our real regrets, because they are not as poignant. Unlike real regrets stemming from painful events we’ve endured or caused, we often can’t identify the genesis of fantasy regrets because they are amalgamations of various messages, impressions, aspirations, envies, and hopes we’ve picked up along the way, some extending back into childhood.

These are often unexamined, uncritical assumptions about what will make us happy that wield remarkable power over us because they keep forming mirage dreams we end up chasing. We don’t recognize them as fantasies; they just impress us as the way things should be. And when they keep dissipating as we approach them, they become sources of chronic “if only” discontentment.

The End of If Only

Whether we’re dealing with real or fantasy regrets, the way we know we are focusing too much on them is that we find them draining our hope and sapping our joy. They lead us into a wasteland of discouragement or sitting in the dungeon of despair.

What’s happening is that these regrets are shifting our focus away from trusting the promises of God — the grounds and fuel of our future hope — to trusting the promises of our regrets. Discouragement and despair set in because we feel trapped by regrets we cannot seem to change.

The path out of the wasteland, the key out of the dungeon, lies in two small words that convey omnipotent power to deliver us from every regret: “But God.”

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:1–7)

You were once spiritually dead, living in regrettable sin, no matter how sordid or relatively well-behaved you were. But God! He loved you, he saved you, and he has made your future brighter than your heart has yet imagined (1 Corinthians 2:9).

The gospel truth is this: you are not trapped by any “if only” regret — real or fantasy, legitimate or illegitimate, past or present. All of your if only’s will find their end in your God, who is rich in mercy and abounding in a love for you so powerful, it conquers death and hell. All of his promises to you are yes in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). All your real, deep longings for joy he will fulfill, to some degree in this age, and in the age to come with all joy you will be capable of experiencing (Psalm 16:11).

So if you’re regrets are weighing you down, examine them. What is giving them life? Once you know, lay them aside and turn your gaze to Christ (Hebrews 12:1–2) and seize some of his promises. Remember: But God. Let him work your regrettable past for good, and let him blow away the fog of any fantasies.

Church Membership Has Left Me Relationally Jaded

Thu, 10/26/2017 - 8:00pm

Even the best churches and friendships can leave us feeling relationally jaded. So how can we persevere in love when others disappoint us so much?

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The Teenage Martyr: Lady Jane Grey (c. 1537–1554)

Thu, 10/26/2017 - 1:30pm

February 10, 1554: Two days before Lady Jane Grey climbs the scaffold. The Catholic chaplain John Feckenham enters Jane’s cell in the Tower of London in the hopes of saving her soul. Or so he thinks.

Queen Mary (aka “Bloody Mary”) had already signed her cousin Jane’s death warrant, but she sent her seasoned chaplain to see if he could woo Jane back to Rome before her execution. Jane is about seventeen years old.

A charged debate follows — Feckenham the Catholic apologist and Jane the Reformed teenager. He presses that justification comes by faith and works; she stands her ground on sola fide. He asserts that the Eucharistic bread and wine are the very body and blood of Christ; she maintains that the elements symbolize Jesus’s saving work. He affirms the Catholic Church’s authority alongside Scripture; she insists that the church sits underneath the piercing gaze of God’s word.

“I am sure we two shall never meet [again],” Feckenham finally tells Jane, implying her damnation. But Jane turns the warning back on him: “Truth it is that we shall never meet [again], unless God turn your heart.”

Lady Jane’s Sovereign God

From one angle, Jane’s life is a story of manipulation, of powerful people using a teenager girl as a social and political prop. Her parents forced a severe education regimen upon her in the hopes that she could marry the heir to England’s throne. When that opportunity passed, the Greys colluded with the king’s chief minister to wed Jane to Guildford Dudley, a man she despised. And then, at the king’s passing, a group of political conspirers handed her the crown that would cost Jane her head.

A true angle as far as it goes, but it belongs to Ecclesiastes — it’s the under-the-sun perspective on Lady Jane. Through the lens of God’s providence, a different Jane appears. A Jane who used her Greek and Hebrew to study the Scriptures in their original tongue. A Jane sent to Henry VIII’s court for grooming, only to meet Jesus through the Christian witness of Queen Katherine Parr. And, finally, a Jane who faces trial, imprisonment, and beheading with God’s very words on her lips.

This second perspective is no attempt at hagiography or hero worship. The accounts tell us Jane could be stubborn as a weed. The perspective simply acknowledges that the God of Joseph still threads redemption through conniving relatives and lonely jail cells. “You meant to use me for your own ends,” Jane might have told any number of people, “but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

The Tower Cell

Lady Jane reluctantly took the throne on July 10, 1553, and willingly left it on July 19, 1553, when Mary gathered an army to depose her cousin queen. So Jane is often remembered by a number: the Nine-Days’ Queen.

On February 7, 1554, Mary signed the death warrant that would lead Jane to the scaffold just five days later. In addition to sparring with Feckenham, Jane spent her final days preparing a brief speech for her execution and sending some last remarks. On the inside of her Greek New Testament, she wrote to her younger sister, Katharine,

This is the book, dear sister, of the Law of the Lord. It is his testament and last will, which he bequeathed unto us wretches, which shall lead you to the path of eternal joy. . . . And as touching my death, rejoice as I do, good sister, that I shall be delivered of this corruption, and put on incorruption. For I am assured that I shall for losing of a mortal life, win an immortal life.

On the Scaffold

The morning of February 12 brought Jane to the wall of the central White Tower, where a small crowd and an executioner awaited her arrival. Turning to the onlookers, Jane announced, “I do look to be saved by no other mean, but only by the mercy of God, in the blood of his only Son Jesus Christ.” She then knelt and recited Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God. . . .”

Once blindfolded, Jane groped her way to the execution block and laid her head in its groove. The last sound the crowd heard before the axe thudded into the block was a prayer from Jane’s seventeen-year-old voice: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” So ended the life of Lady Jane Grey, the teenage martyr.

For more on Lady Jane Grey:

Five Women of the English Reformation by Paul F. M. Zahl

Eight Women of Faith by Michael Haykin

The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey by Leanda de Lisle

Our Eyes Are on You, Lord: Thoughts on Pastoral Succession

Thu, 10/26/2017 - 1:00pm

Sooner or later, every leader will hand off the baton to the next generation — and where better to center pastoral succession than in the word of God himself?

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The Teenage Martyr: Lady Jane Grey (c. 1537–1554)

Thu, 10/26/2017 - 1:00am

February 10, 1554: Two days before Lady Jane Grey climbs the scaffold. The Catholic chaplain John Feckenham enters Jane’s cell in the Tower of London in the hopes of saving her soul. Or so he thinks.

Queen Mary (aka “Bloody Mary”) had already signed her cousin Jane’s death warrant, but she sent her seasoned chaplain to see if he could woo Jane back to Rome before her execution. Jane is about seventeen years old.

A charged debate follows — Feckenham the Catholic apologist and Jane the Reformed teenager. He presses that justification comes by faith and works; she stands her ground on sola fide. He asserts that the Eucharistic bread and wine are the very body and blood of Christ; she maintains that the elements symbolize Jesus’s saving work. He affirms the Catholic Church’s authority alongside Scripture; she insists that the church sits underneath the piercing gaze of God’s word.

“I am sure we two shall never meet [again],” Feckenham finally tells Jane, implying her damnation. But Jane turns the warning back on him: “Truth it is that we shall never meet [again], unless God turn your heart.”

Lady Jane’s Sovereign God

From one angle, Jane’s life is a story of manipulation, of powerful people using a teenager girl as a social and political prop. Her parents forced a severe education regimen upon her in the hopes that she could marry the heir to England’s throne. When that opportunity passed, the Greys colluded with the king’s chief minister to wed Jane to Guildford Dudley, a man she despised. And then, at the king’s passing, a group of political conspirers handed her the crown that would cost Jane her head.

A true angle as far as it goes, but it belongs to Ecclesiastes — it’s the under-the-sun perspective on Lady Jane. Through the lens of God’s providence, a different Jane appears. A Jane who used her Greek and Hebrew to study the Scriptures in their original tongue. A Jane sent to Henry VIII’s court for grooming, only to meet Jesus through the Christian witness of Queen Katherine Parr. And, finally, a Jane who faces trial, imprisonment, and beheading with God’s very words on her lips.

This second perspective is no attempt at hagiography or hero worship. The accounts tell us Jane could be stubborn as a weed. The perspective simply acknowledges that the God of Joseph still threads redemption through conniving relatives and lonely jail cells. “You meant to use me for your own ends,” Jane might have told any number of people, “but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

The Tower Cell

Lady Jane reluctantly took the throne on July 10, 1553, and willingly left it on July 19, 1553, when Mary gathered an army to depose her cousin queen. So Jane is often remembered by a number: the Nine-Days’ Queen.

On February 7, 1554, Mary signed the death warrant that would lead Jane to the scaffold just five days later. In addition to sparring with Feckenham, Jane spent her final days preparing a brief speech for her execution and sending some last remarks. On the inside of her Greek New Testament, she wrote to her younger sister, Katharine,

This is the book, dear sister, of the Law of the Lord. It is his testament and last will, which he bequeathed unto us wretches, which shall lead you to the path of eternal joy. . . . And as touching my death, rejoice as I do, good sister, that I shall be delivered of this corruption, and put on incorruption. For I am assured that I shall for losing of a mortal life, win an immortal life.

On the Scaffold

The morning of February 12 brought Jane to the wall of the central White Tower, where a small crowd and an executioner awaited her arrival. Turning to the onlookers, Jane announced, “I do look to be saved by no other mean, but only by the mercy of God, in the blood of his only Son Jesus Christ.” She then knelt and recited Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God. . . .”

Once blindfolded, Jane groped her way to the execution block and laid her head in its groove. The last sound the crowd heard before the axe thudded into the block was a prayer from Jane’s seventeen-year-old voice: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” So ended the life of Lady Jane Grey, the teenage martyr.

For more on Lady Jane Grey:

Five Women of the English Reformation by Paul F. M. Zahl

Eight Women of Faith by Michael Haykin

The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: Mary, Katherine, and Lady Jane Grey by Leanda de Lisle

Whitewashed Heroes: The Flaws in Our Reformers

Wed, 10/25/2017 - 8:03pm

If you’ve heard much about the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, you’ve probably heard the word hero.

Martin Luther, the hero of Wittenberg, who took his stand against corrupt priests, cardinals, and the pope himself. John Calvin, the hero of Geneva, who wrote the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ulrich Zwingli, the hero of Zurich, who outdebated the city’s Catholic leaders and persuaded the people to join the Reformation.

But anyone who knows the history well enough may balk at that word hero. The Reformers were not only courageous men and women who recovered the gospel, but also inconsistent men and women whose lives often betrayed the gospel. Consider some well-known examples from Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, the Reformation’s three brightest lights.

  • Luther repeatedly leveled vicious insults at his opponents, including Catholics, Jews, Anabaptists, and others. Although Luther attacked Jews primarily for theological rather than ethnic reasons, many have understandably accused him of anti-Semitism.
  • Calvin allowed Geneva’s city council to execute Michael Servetus, a heretic on the run from Roman Catholic authorities.
  • Zwingli, in similar fashion to Calvin, approved of the drowning of Felix Manz, one of his former students and a leader in the budding Anabaptist movement.

If you read biographies of the Reformation’s other leaders, you’ll find that many harbored character flaws as devastating as Luther’s, Calvin’s, and Zwingli’s. Each goes down in history with their own glaring asterisk. One might begin to wonder if we should celebrate these men and women at all.

The Right Kind of Celebration

But the difficulty is at least as old as the book of Hebrews. In Hebrews 11, the author celebrates a band of believers just as flawed as our Reformers. Consider Noah, who got drunk off his own vineyard and lay naked in his tent (Genesis 9:20–21). Or Moses, whose disobedience left him dead outside the promised land (Deuteronomy 34:4–5). Or David, who wielded his royal authority to commit adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11:1–27).

Somehow, the author of Hebrews gazed out across these walking contradictions and saw a group of heroes. I believe we can see the same in Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the rest of our Reformers. But in order to process their failures and praise their victories as we ought, we would do well to follow a three-step process: understand their context, name their sin, and celebrate their faith.

1. Understand Their Context

First, we should try to learn what we can about the figure’s historical context and the particular situations that provoked their sinful responses. As we do so, we are not looking to minimize, excuse, or explain away their sin; instead, we’re placing ourselves alongside them as fellow sinners and seeking to grasp why it happened. It’s remarkably easy to cast stones across the centuries before we’ve tried to travel there ourselves.

For example, let’s attempt to inhabit Geneva in 1553, the year Calvin approved of Servetus’s execution. For the last twelve centuries, the Church has locked hands with the state, a marriage that has made unorthodox beliefs a threat to both parties. Under this arrangement, Church and state authorities often did not merely excommunicate heretics; they executed them. Calvin breathed this political and ecclesial air his whole life.

Calvin, who knew Servetus and had labored to persuade him of orthodox theology, warned Servetus not to come to Geneva. When he came anyway, Catholic authorities had already condemned the man to be burned at the stake for heresy, a decision that placed Geneva in a corner. Historian Mark Talbot writes, “Not to execute Servetus, if he did not repent and retract his views, would make the Protestant territories seem dangerously soft both religiously and politically” (With Calvin in the Theater of God, 151).

We could say more, but from these facts alone, we should admit that the Servetus affair would look a little different to a sixteenth-century Genevan than it does to a twenty-first century American. If we faithfully uncover the historical context of our leaders’ sins, we will often be left saying, “That could have been me. I could have done that.”

2. Name Their Sin

None of this circumstantial information, however, removes the Reformers’ responsibility. And we don’t do anyone a favor by pretending that it does.

If we try to whitewash Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others, we hide a lesson all of us need to hear — namely, that Satan and our own hearts can deceive us so thoroughly that we cannot even see the ways our lives contradict our message. As John Piper writes in his short biography of Luther, “the devil is real and can trip a great man into graceless behavior, even as he recovers grace from centuries of obscurity” (Legacy of Sovereign Joy, 32). Studying the Reformers should humble us and send us searching for our own flaws that we fail to see — the sins that may scar history books written five centuries from now.

Even more importantly, when we downplay the Reformers’ flaws, we obscure the heart and soul of the Reformation itself. Even at their best, the Reformers were object lessons for the gospel they preached: Jesus came for failing, broken people. God does not search for beautiful people to save; instead, he searches for broken people to make beautiful through his Son, Jesus Christ (Matthew 9:13; Luke 19:10).

If the gospel is only for the beautiful, or only for saints who leap from peak to peak on their way to glory, then the gospel isn’t for you and me. A gospel that promises instant and total transformation is a sentimental lie, a rose hiding its thorn, a vain attempt to varnish the canvas of history and human hearts so we don’t look so desperately wicked. In other words, it’s no gospel at all.

To be sure, people who make a practice of sinning will not enter God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 John 3:8). But if we dig deeply enough into these Reformers’ historical context and personal lives, we will find (in most if not all cases) that they did not make a practice of high-handed sin. Their culture and times may have blinded them to their particular evils; rarely (if ever) did they walk in conscious, unrepentant rebellion.

The Reformation was never about a cast of holy characters, but instead about one holy Christ, the Son of God, whose suffering and resurrection fully cover his people’s sins — including the sins they commit when they should certainly know better. Jesus has washed our Reformers white with his own precious blood. You and I don’t have to.

3. Celebrate Their Faith

Now we’re in a position to celebrate these Reformers with our eyes wide open. We may have to denounce Luther’s runaway tongue. We may have to lament Calvin’s and Zwingli’s complicity with the state. But once we’ve done so, we can step back and recognize that these tangled men also modeled lives of spectacular faithfulness. And along with the author of Hebrews, we can celebrate the faith of God’s flawed heroes.

We can celebrate Luther’s faith in God’s word as he stood before the imperial assembly of the Holy Roman Empire and said, “My conscience is captive to the word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”

We can celebrate Calvin’s faith in God’s providence when he wrote in his Institutes, “When we are unjustly wounded by men, let us overlook their wickedness . . . remember to mount up to God, and learn to believe for certain that whatever our enemy has wickedly committed against us was permitted and sent by God’s just dispensation” (1.17.8).

We can celebrate Zwingli’s faith in God’s power when he wrote in his “Sixty-Seven Articles,” “[Christ] is an eternal salvation and head of all believers, who are his body, but which is dead and can do nothing without him.”

We could go on. Through these Reformers, God opposed proud rulers, unmasked depraved priests, and recovered for the world the happy news that God justifies sinners by grace alone, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, through faith alone, for the glory of God alone, as taught with decisive authority in Scripture alone.

Every True Saint

So yes, we are right to call the Reformers heroes. They were heroes with a dark side, certainly, but that’s true of every hero except the One they all reflect. These men and women may have mingled “a deep knowledge of grace with defective views and flawed living,” as Piper writes. But “every worthy theologian and every true saint does the same” (Legacy of Sovereign Joy, 27).

Every true saint is a divided person — a new self that relapses into old ways (Ephesians 4:20–24), a spring that pours forth both freshwater and saltwater (James 3:11), a confounding mixture of good and evil. But as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli display, the Reformers’ flaws posed no obstacle to the Lord of the Reformation. Jesus will build his church, and he will do it with broken saints.

Is God a Megalomaniac?

Wed, 10/25/2017 - 9:54am

God seeks our worship, not because it meets his need, but because it meets ours. God is the only one beautiful enough to satisfy us forever.

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