October 31, 2011

The English Bible and the Protestant Reformation

Since it's Reformation Day, I thought I'd re-post another article from a couple years back.  It was also the introduction to yesterday's sermon, from Psalm 119.24, entitled "Your Testimonies are my Delight."

“Our Father which art in heaven hallowed be Thy name.” So many of us know those words so well. Our parents or Sunday School teachers taught them to us decades ago … and we can still remember them now – twenty, thirty, forty years on. But did you know that there was a time when those parents and Sunday School teachers could have been burned alive for teaching you those lines from Matthew 6?

It’s true. That is exactly what the Roman Catholic Church was doing in the early 1500’s. Not only was it politically expedient, in the middle ages, for the common man to be prevented from reading the Bible in his own language … but the Church itself realized that many of its practices could not be found in the Scriptures, and would actually be unmasked as heretical and soul-destroying if normal people could actually read God’s word. So the Bible – by both church and political laws – was kept locked in the Latin tongue that almost no one could read. And if you were caught reading, possessing, or reciting the newly (and illegally) published English version … the penalty was uniform: death by burning at the stake.

That was the fate that numerous people suffered in England – for reading or possessing the Bible in English! Included among them were seven parents, in 1519, who dared to teach their children the Lord’s Prayer in their own language.

It may distress some Christians that the Ten Commandments are being systematically removed from public display. But that is almost like nothing in comparison to the 1500’s! We can still display the commandments in our homes and churches. We can still own, read, and teach the Bible freely. We can stand on Fountain Square and read it aloud if we want. But here were seven parents who died for teaching Matthew 6.9-13 to their children … in English. It is absolutely unthinkable. And yet it was real. And it happens, in other nations with other languages, even today. And, oh, how we should pray that God continues to give His suffering people strength.

But as we approach the 494th anniversary of the beginning of Protestant Reformation (10/31) … we should thank God for these martyrs for the English Bible. Yes (praise God!) Luther, Calvin, and others rediscovered the biblical and liberating doctrine of salvation by grace, through faith in Jesus alone (and not by works of the law). But we English speakers might have totally missed the blessing were it not for a few brave men and women who dared to get the Bible into English – against the law. Men like John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, and Miles Coverdale translated it – and Tyndale was martyred for doing so. Countless cloth workers smuggled the English Bible into England hidden in bales of cloth sent over from the European continent. And then there were those brave men and women who lost their lives for simply possessing the word of God. Their deaths were not in vain. For such cruelty always arouses the attention of the public to the injustices of those in power … and fans the flame of hunger for God’s word, and for justice!

So this October 31; this Reformation Day – remember these English translators, cloth-workers, and martyrs. And thank God that we have the Bible – and the message of salvation, full and free in Jesus alone – in our own language!

To read more on this topic, check out Piper's bio on William Tyndale (where I got most of this info).

Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation

This is a re-post from several years back.  It's a familiar story, too.  But it's worth repeating on this 494th anniversary of Luther's nailing His 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg.

In July 1505, a careless and superstitious German college student was traveling through the countryside in the midst of a tremendous thunderstorm. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning burst from the clouds and struck the ground so near him that it knocked him off his feet. Frightened and superstitious, he cried out “St. Anne, save me and I will become a monk!” Two weeks later, having survived the storm, he kept his vow and entered the monastery. His name was Martin Luther.

As is the case when you enter the monastery, Luther had a lot of time to think about himself and about God. And the more he thought, the more he realized just how short of God’s standard he fell. He began to hate himself for it. And, in a desperate attempt to make things right with God, he dove head-first into the strict life of the monastery. He read and prayed laboriously. He spent hours in confession, desperately trying to remember every sin he had ever committed—and ended up hating himself even more because he could not remember them all! He fasted constantly, sometimes for days on end. He sometimes disciplined himself by spending freezing winter nights sleeping in the cold with no blanket. He would later say, “I kept the rule so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his sheer monkery, it was I. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.”

Despite all his efforts, Martin Luther could find no peace with God. He was terrified of God and saw Him only as a Judge, eager to punish. Historian Bruce Shelley describes Luther’s first service of the Mass like this:

In the midst of saying his first Mass, said Luther, “I was utterly stupefied and terrorstricken. I thought to myself, ‘Who am I that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin, and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God?’ No amount of penance, no soothing advice from his superiors could still Luther’s conviction that he was a miserable, doomed sinner. Although his confessor counseled him to love God, Luther one day burst out, “I do not love God! I hate Him!”[1]

Now why did Martin Luther come to a place where he hated God? Why did he feel so condemned and so unloved by God? The reason is because, all his life he had heard much about God’s righteous judgment on sinners. But he had never heard that God is also the One who freely forgives. He had never heard that forgiveness of sins was an absolutely free gift! Everything that Martin Luther had ever been taught by the priests led him to believe that it is up to us to get right with God by virtue of our own good works…and Luther found himself completely unable! So, he was undone. And he hated this God whom he believed was so exacting and so unmerciful!

Perhaps this is the position some of you are in this very moment: hoping to get right with God through being good, and finding yourself incapable of being good! You are frustrated. You feel like God will never be satisfied and you will never measure up. And you find it very difficult to love a God like that!

If that is where you are, I have good news for you. After ten years of struggling, Martin Luther finally found hope and forgiveness. And he found it in Romans 1.16-17 where the apostle Paul writes:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first an also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, he who is righteous by faith shall live.

Luther discovered two important things as he studied these two verses:

1.It is the “gospel”—the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection—and not our good behavior, which “is the power of God for salvation.” We are saved by Jesus’ good works, not our own!

2. This salvation is available to “everyone who believes.” Or as verse 17 puts it, “He who is righteous by faith (as opposed to good works) shall live.” We become right with God, not by doing good works, but by believing in God’s Son!

Now, do you know what happens when we discover God’s mercy and grace toward sinners? Let’s let Luther describe it. Upon discovering the free gift of salvation through faith in Jesus, He said: “I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise!” When we realize that God wants to give us salvation as a free gift; and when, therefore, we stop trying to earn God’s favor, we gain peace with God. We no longer hate Him. We no longer see Him as our Condemner but as our Friend. We walk through open doors into paradise! That will happen for you today if you will but believe in God who saves the ungodly!

That is what happened for Martin Luther. And when he published his discovery on this date—October 31, 1517—God used this rediscovery of God’s free gift of salvation to begin a spiritual revival in which thousands of people found the same peace that Martin Luther found; the same peace that I hope each of you will find and share with others. Let’s pray that this would happen for someone today…

[1] This quote, the other quotes in this section, and the specifics of historical detail come from: Shelley, Bruce. Church History in Plain Language. (Dallas: Word, 1982), pages 238-239.

October 24, 2011

Not Even One

This article was written about 6 years ago.  I think I could "amen" it even more loudly now than then.

Tobey and I were talking this week with someone about what I’ve learned the last five years or so. Particularly, what have I learned about being a Christian. Here is my answer: I’m really not a good person. That is what I’ve learned. Of course I’ve learned other things. But that may be the main one: I’m really not as good as I thought I was.

Now I definitely grew up believing that everyone was a sinner. I’ve known Romans 3.23 as long as I can remember. But I think my attitude through much of my growing up years was that I (and my church-going compatriots) were among the sinners who really weren’t all that bad. There were sinners…and then there were SINNERS. And I was definitely in the lower-case sinners club.

Did I need God’s grace and forgiveness? Sure. Everybody does. But those people out there sure needed it a lot more than I did! I was one of those who sinned every now and again. I needed forgiveness sprinkled in here and there. But basically I was pretty good.

I really think that this is what I thought it meant to be a Christian. Now, of course, I wouldn’t have described it exactly this way. I would have spoken in terms that almost all Bible-believing people do. “Are you a sinner?” “Well of course, we’re all sinners!” “Do you need a Savior?” “Certainly. Everybody needs a Savior.”

Now, while these statements are correct, do you see that they are woefully inadequate? Being a Christian is not simply believing that we are all sinners—but that I myself am a terrible sinner! Being a Christian doesn’t simply mean we accept that all people need the Savior—but that I myself am in desperate need of His sacrifice on my behalf.

And for goodness sake, being a Christian doesn’t mean that I think I’m one of the lesser sinners. One is not a Christian because he has his act together, goes to church, and is a pretty nice person. But sadly, that is what many, many people, who go to church every Sunday believe.

Again, they would never go so far as to say: “I am saved by my good works.” No, No. That would be heresy. But many of the same people who would never claim to be saved by works would also be unwilling to admit of themselves: “I am not a good person. I am a bad person.” But isn’t that what the Bible says? When the Bible proclaims: “there is none righteous, not even one…there is none who seeks for God…there is none who does good, there is not even one” (Rom. 3.10-12)—isn’t it talking about me?

If I am honest with myself, I do not have to look very deeply into my heart, my thoughts, and my actions to discern that the Bible speaks truth here. But only when I do am I a candidate for God’s grace. For Jesus didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.

October 10, 2011

Faith Alone?

In the church tradition from which we come, we are accustomed to being taught (correctly) that we are saved by faith alone. Many of us who grew up in church had verses like Romans 3.28 stamped on our memories: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.” And even those of us who haven’t been in church that long have at least had this truth ingrained on our minds—we are saved by faith in Jesus, not by doing good works. How true!

But as we’ve matured in faith; as we’ve read our Bibles, many of us have come across a bit of a trip-line in James 2. Check out verse 24: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” ‘WHAT? Justified by works?! That can’t be right, can it?’ Well, not only can it be…it is. It is right there in the Bible. And it seems like Paul and James are arguing on two totally different sides. And we might think that if we did not believe that God wrote the Bible. But since we believe God told both Paul and James what to write, their writings must somehow blend together to make one cohesive truth. And I believe they do…

What Paul is saying is clear—faith alone saves. James would agree. He’s just flipping the faith coin over so we can see what is on the other side—namely, good works. James knew that faith alone saved. He was simply pointing out that true saving faith is always accompanied and demonstrated by good works.

The people of other centuries explained this two-sided coin with a phrase that went something like this: It is faith alone that saves, but saving faith is never alone. In other words, if all you had was faith in Christ … that would be good enough to make you right with God; good enough to swing open the door of heaven. But the truth is that, when God grants a person faith, He always gives it in a package deal with love, a desire for holiness, and the Law written on our hearts.

Perhaps an illustration would help. Say the cabinet above your stove becomes so warped from steam that it is completely jammed shut. Try as you might, you cannot pull it open and get to the food inside.  But along I come and give you a multi-purpose tool—a screwdriver, knife, fingernail file, allen wrench, box-cutter, and scissors all in one, pocket-knife type of contraption. So you unfold the screwdriver, turn the screws that hold the cabinet's hinges in place, remove the hinges, and off pops the door.

Now it would be totally correct to say: “The screw-driver alone got me into the cabinet.” No one would argue that. Neither the scissors nor the knife enabled you to get to your Cheerios. But those tools DID come in the package deal with the screw-driver. You couldn’t have gotten one without the other.

The same is true with faith. Faith in Jesus alone gets you into a relationship with God. Loving your neighbor, going to church, paying your tithes could never do that. But those kinds of things DO come in a package deal with faith. You cannot have one without the other!

And to carry the illustration further, remember that opening a shut door is not the only use for that screwdriver. It’s also helpful in putting up shelves, hanging pictures, and installing your air-filters! So it is with faith. Faith does not stop working when it believes on Jesus and the door of heaven swings open. It continues as a day-by-day trust in the Lord. And it is that day-by-day trust in the Lord that allows us to give money away, pray for our enemies, study our Bibles, etc. If we trust the Lord to bless our obedience, we will follow Him whole-heartedly—and good works will be the inevitable result! So not only is saving faith accompanied by a desire for good works…but it also positively produces the good works!

So we may both “maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law” and at the same time “see that a man is justified by works and not by faith (that is alone) alone.” Because true faith is never alone, but always shows up with its friends!

October 3, 2011


In Ecclesiastes 6.7, King Solomon penned these wise words: “All a man’s labor is for his mouth and yet the soul is not satisfied.” A powerful proverb—especially coming from a man whose appetite was fed with every pleasure known to man. Consider what Solomon is really saying:

1. Getting what you want will never satisfy you. Oh sure, eating more, owning more, vacationing more, feeling more…all these things may satisfy some temporary desires. They may make your body or mind happy for a season. But Solomon says that gratifying these desires will never satisfy the deepest part of a person—his soul. The soul is where the deepest longings exist. The soul is where the most painful agonies cry out. And in the end, it is often true that the people who are most wealthy and most gratified have souls which are least healthy and least satisfied! And Solomon ought to know. He was Bill Gates and the President of the United States all rolled into one—the wealthiest, most powerful man in the known world. Listen to his self-description in Ecclesiastes 2.4-10:

4I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; 5I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; 6I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. 7I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. 8Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men--many concubines. 9Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. 10All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor.

Solomon had possessions (v.4-6), power (v.7), money (v.8a), sexual gratification (v.8b), fame (v.9a), wisdom (v.9b), pleasure (v.10a), and success (v.10b). Yet with all this, his soul was not satisfied. Read what he says in 2.11: “Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind.” Which brings me to my second point from Ecclesiastes 6.7:

2. Working for what you get will never satisfy you. Now that goes exactly contrary to the American way of thinking doesn’t it? We’ve been taught to think that the only things worth having are the things you have to work for. But Solomon says it isn’t so. He says that a man’s “labor” is, in the end, not satisfying to the soul.

When you work for something, the end result is that you get simply what you deserve. You earn a wage. And no one turns cartwheels when they get their same old paycheck on a Friday afternoon. But what if, when you get that paycheck, your boss has, out of the goodness of his heart, given you a $100 bonus? Then you get excited! So Solomon is right. The things worked for aren’t what exhilarate the soul. It’s the free gifts that truly make the heart glad.

So what is the point? Solomon’s point is simply this: Soul satisfaction comes neither through temporary, earthly gratification…nor through sweat and toil. Actually the opposite is true. Soul satisfaction comes as we: (a) Cease aiming to satisfy ourselves, and start aiming to be satisfied in God; and (b) Stop trying to work for everything we get and realize that satisfaction—forgiveness, purpose, relationship with God, and eternal life—is a free gift through the life and death of Jesus.

To boil it down to a simple question: Are you working for yourself…or resting in Jesus? The eternal satisfaction of your soul depends upon how you answer!

October 1, 2011