ALL HALLOWS’ EVE, 1517

Dr. Martin Luther

Today is All Hallow’s Eve, or the Eve of All Saints’ Day. Though this day is popularly called “Halloween”, there’s a better way to remember this day.  On that day in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  The story is worth telling, so here’s a brief version.

Albert of Brandenburg, was a son of one of the noble families in Germany and an elector of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He also was serving the Church as bishop of Magdeburg and bishop of Halberstadt.  These positions afforded him income from the citizens.  He was offered a third bishopric, that of Mainz, in an irregular arrangement with Pope Leo X.  In those days the pope would raise money for his enterprises by charging fees to noblemen who wanted a church office.  Albert wanted to be bishop of Mainz in order to extend the power of his family over additional territory in Germany.  He negotiated with Pope Leo who settled with him on the price of 10,000 ducats (about $400,000).  Since the citizens of Mainz were already poor from paying for previous bishops, Albert had to borrow the money for this fee and related expenses.  Pope Leo agreed to an eight-year plan to help Albert pay this debt through the sale of indulgences in Albert’s territory.  Half of the proceeds would go to Albert to pay off his debt, and the other half to Pope Leo (in addition to the original 10,000 ducats!) to help finance his work on the basilica of St Peter’s.  Through these indulgences the poor citizens of Mainz ended up paying for Albert, after all.

Albert was Luther’s own bishop.  Luther probably didn’t know the details of the arrangement, but likely knew that half the indulgence income would go to Albert.  It wasn’t just the financial aspect that troubled Luther.  Indulgences were originally imposed to spur the penitent to be truly contrite.  But the Church had redefined them to be payment that secured release from temporal penalties, and a means of drawing off the merit of the saints.  This led to the popular idea that buying them removed not just temporal penalties but eternal punishment for sin, even without true contrition.  Though Luther already had concerns about indulgences before 1517, what led to his public complaint was this sale by Albert.  Luther’s own parishioners were returning to Wittenberg with their indulgences.  They had been promised the full and perfect forgiveness of all their sins, restoring them to their baptismal innocence.  Furthermore, they were promised relief from all punishments in purgatory, even for sins committed against God .  These indulgences could be purchased for dead relatives, and Tetzel, the indulgence preacher, played on the emotions of those who thought they had relatives in purgatory.

Luther was scandalized.  He saw that these falsehoods were giving his people false hope of salvation for themselves and their loved ones.  This would lead to spiritual complacency and worse, damnation.   He wrote this:

 Those who believe that, through letters of pardon, they are made sure of their own salvation, will be   eternally damned along with their teachers.    (Thesis No. 32)

A false gospel had arisen.  The Lord used Luther to stand against it and engage all Christendom in an open debate on the true gospel.

We should wonder: how could the Church of Jesus Christ get so confused about the nature of the gospel?  How could the Church of Jesus Christ be so disordered in its practice of the gospel?

Luther understood at least part of the reason.  He wrote a disputation on his concerns, asking for scholarly dialogue.  We call it “The 95 Theses.”  On the eve of All Saints’ Day, 1517, he posted his disputation on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  He also sent a copy to Albert, his bishop, with a letter pleading that Albert correct these abuses.

Luther realized how the church had reached this state: church leaders were sinning even as they preached and practiced of the gospel.  Listen to what he wrote in theses 62, 63 and 64:

62: The true treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.

63: This treasure, however, is deservedly most hateful, because it makes the first to be last.

64: While the treasure of indulgences is deservedly most acceptable, because it makes the last to be first.

Those have to be read carefully.  Luther understood that churchmen were gratifying the flesh even as they preached and practiced the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He was doing something similar to what the apostle Paul did for the churches of Galatia: he was clarifying the gospel and teaching church leaders how to preach it and practice it.

When we are preaching or practicing the gospel, it is not as if we are automatically put into some sin-free zone.  The gospel deals with overwhelming realities: a holy God…sin…grace…forgiveness.  We do not readily accept or even understand these realities.  We find them uncomfortable.  And the Devil always aims his barbs at us: trying to deflect our understanding and practice of the gospel.  We face numerous temptations, temptations that arise from our own flesh.

Elders might think that since they have Matthew 18 memorized, they know all they need to use the gospel with an offending brother.  Foolishness!  It’s one thing to know the procedure that Jesus gives; but it takes a lot of prayer, other biblical knowledge, wisdom and deep love of God and love for the sinner for elders to begin to use Matthew 18 well.  The gospel is the power of God at work.  It is not simply a matter of our following certain methods.  We never become experts at gospel reconciliation.  Jesus is the expert; and we are his servants.

We will spend our whole lives learning the depths of God’s holiness, our sin, its various effects on us, our loved ones and the world.  Our focus must always be on the gospel as the power of God: it is his sovereign, gracious working by the Holy Spirit that is key, not our maturity.  We would do well to heed Luther’s very first thesis:

 1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ in saying: “Repent ye,” etc., intended that the whole life of believers should be penitence.

Luther teaches us to be humble before every, single matter of sin and forgiveness.  Because without the power of the Holy Spirit at work, our best thoughts and actions are nothing, and accomplish nothing.

The amazing thing is that by grace, the Holy Spirit does work, even through our shallow grasp of these things.  When we acknowledge our limitations and trust in God’s power alone, He works and we grow in grace.  Christ teaches us the deep things of the gospel as we work together.  He teaches us more and more…

about the holiness of God,

about the appalling wickedness of sin,

about listening to a sinner and loving them,

about the intricacies of the human heart,

about the powerful and wonderful grace of God.

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Infants and the Sign of the Covenant

One of the elements of a biblical view of the covenant is the fact that infant children of believers are in the covenant and therefore baptized.  While there is a lot of biblical teaching undergirding this practice, I would like to address one question that is sometimes raised about infant baptism.  If the New Testament calls people to repent before they are baptized, why baptize infants who cannot repent?  This question is actually more involved than it seems.  But let’s consider the question’s assumption that the sign of the covenant should only given after faith and repentance.  Since Abraham is our arch example of faith (Romans 4:1-25; Galatians 3:5-29), his experience is instructive.  After being on the road of faith and repentance, the Lord revealed his promises more fully and Abraham believed.  The Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).  Then after the Lord gave him further promises, Abraham expressed his faith by circumcising himself and the males of his household; infant sons were included (See Genesis 17:12).  In other words, Abraham believed God’s promise and then expressed his faith by receiving the sign of the covenant and giving it to his sons.  If he had refused to circumcise his infant sons, he would have demonstrated unbelief and set them up to be covenant breakers (Genesis 17:14)

There is a foundational pattern here.  In both the Old and New Testaments, adults members of the covenant are called to believe God’s promises.  One way they express their belief is by giving their children the sign of the covenant.  Of course, they must back this up with faithful nurture of their children, but I jump ahead.  The main point is that the Bible commands godly parents to give their infants the sign of the covenant before they personally express faith and repentance.

Of course, I have assumed several things that I haven’t proven here.  I do plan to bring the rest out on the table and explain myself.  For now I leave you with this pattern: Abraham believed God, received the sign of the covenant and gave it to his infant sons.  Adults who come to believe the gospel of Christ receive the sign of the covenant and then give it to their infant children.  

Patrick, A Man for All Christians

Though Patrick has been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, he does not belong to it alone.  He is a father in the faith to all Christians. Whether one marks the beginning of church history from Abraham’s call or the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Magonius Sucatus Patricius is part of that history. His missionary work in Ireland is a story of godliness for all Christians to know and learn from.  And since the good news that Patrick announced is for all people, his story is a divine gift for those outside the Church.

In his “Confession” he tells us about himself:

I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many.  My father was Calpornius, a deacon, son  of Potitus, a priest, of the village Bannavem Taburniae; he had a country seat nearby, and there I was taken captive. 

I was then about sixteen years of age.  I did not know the true God.  I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people –and deservedly so, because we turned away from God, and did not keep His commandments, and did not obey our priests, who used to remind us of our salvation.  And the Lord brought over us the wrath of His anger and scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, where now my littleness is placed among strangers.

 And there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance, and watched over me before I knew Him, and before I was able to distinguish between good and evil, and guarded me, and comforted me as would a father his son.

Hence I cannot be silent – nor, indeed, is it expedient – about the great benefits and the great grace which the Lord has deigned to bestow upon me in the land of my captivity; for this we can give to God in return after having been chastened by Him, to exalt and praise His wonders before every nation that is anywhere under the heaven.* 

When Patrick wrote these words, he was looking back over his life’s work of exalting and praising God’s wonders before the Irish.  This was no small task.  He and his companions trekked across Ireland, taking the gospel to territories claimed by powerful chieftains and Druid  priests.

Copy of Details_Roman_Road_Santa_Agueda cropped for blog

Steadfast throughout his life and trusting to God’s gracious providence, the very people who had enslaved him for six years were freed from spiritual bondage and came to know the true and living God.  Patrick gave God the glory.

One way to understand Patrick is to read (or sing as my church will do tomorrow) the poem that has been attributed to him, St. Patrick’s Breastplate.  Though it is not certain that he wrote it, its language is believed to be at least as early as the 6th century, reflecting the spirit of his Bible-driven commitment to Christ.  Prepare to be drenched in a downpour of truth.

ST. PATRICK’S BREASTPLATE **

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity:
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the Incarnation of Christ with His Baptism,
The virtue of His crucifixion with His burial,
The virtue of His Resurrection with His Ascension,
The virtue of His coming on the Judgment Day.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the love of seraphim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the hope of resurrection unto reward,
In prayers of Patriarchs,
In predictions of Prophets,
In preaching of Apostles,
In faith of Confessors,
In purity of holyVirgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I bind to myself today
The power of Heaven,
The light of the sun,
The brightness of the moon,
The splendour of fire,
The flashing of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of sea,
The stability of earth,
The compactness of rocks.

I bind to myself today
God’s Power to guide me,
God’s Might to uphold me,
God’s Wisdom to teach me,
God’s Eye to watch over me,
God’s Ear to hear me,
God’s Word to give me speech,
God’s Hand to guide me,
God’s Way to lie before me,
God’s Shield to shelter me,
God’s Host to secure me,
Against the snares of demons,
Against the seductions of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,
Whether far or near,
Whether few or with many.

I invoke today all these virtues
Against every hostile merciless power
Which may assail my body and my soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of women, and smiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.

Christ, protect me today
Against every poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against death-wound,
That I may receive abundant reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot seat,
Christ in the poop [deck],
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of an invocation of the Trinity,
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

While you or I might not agree with everything Patrick says, still here is a worldview that integrates the reality of the Triune God as Creator,  Christ’s  lordship over all things and a humble trust in Christ’s protection in all situations.   In other words, Patrick didn’t just think great and essential truths about God; he trusted in the living God about whom these things were true.  His example is worth following.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

* Gallico, Paul.  “Confession.” The Steadfast Man.  New York: Doubleday and Company,1958. 203.

** Moran, Patrick Francis Cardinal. “St. Patrick.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 16 Mar. 2013 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11554a.htm&gt;.

The Good News Is Better Than We Imagine

The Gospel

It is not about you and I *                                            

going to heaven when we die.

It is about the risen King 

ruling over everything.

Christians have broken up the gospel and distributed the fragments throughout the Church at large. Some are clinging tightly to the fragment about having a personal relationship with God. Others are clinging just as tightly to this personal fragment, but have wrapped it in careful language drawn from their denominational heritage. Still others have taken this Jesus-in-my-heart fragment in one hand and with the other have picked up the social-justice fragment, calling it “Jesus in my neighbor.”  Liberal Christians have been holding onto this social-justice fragment for a long time; but they seem to have forgotten how justice comes, so their fragment is breaking up into sand. One could go on, but you get the idea.

Why can’t we take hold of the whole gospel? The answer is a long, sad tale of being seduced by the Spirit of the Age rather than listening carefully to the Spirit of the Living God. The inspired Scriptures tell us that Jesus Christ came to be a King who would rule over the universe. This rule would be focused on delivering man from sin and misery, and restoring a ruined Creation to glory.

It seems that Christians are so often satisfied with pieces of the gospel. Given the bigness of the gospel and the smallness of our minds, that is somewhat to be expected. But it cannot be tolerated. The Creator is not about to save a few souls and let the Devil have the rest of mankind, with the cosmos to boot. Jesus Christ has been given all authority in heaven and earth. He has told us to make disciples of all nations…Nations! This means that our Lord, who rules over all things at the right hand of the father, is extending his rule over the whole earth, teaching the nations to love and serve him. Isaiah the prophet tells us that one day the nations will flow to the house of the LORD and walk in his ways. (Isaiah 2:1-5) God will renew the universe and put his redeemed people on a new earth to live there forever.

So let’s no longer pick up pieces of the gospel. Let’s take the whole thing! Surely it is this whole gospel that is truly good news for us and worth announcing to our neighbors.

~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~   ~    ~   ~   ~   ~     * Of course, this first-person pronoun is supposed to be in the objective case; but it’s the only way I could make my little poem rhyme.

The Real Immanuel

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the
prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,      
and they shall call his name “Immanuel” (which means “God                                               with us”).                                                                       Matthew 1:22-23

In the past weeks many of us have sung “O Come, O Come, Immanuel.” What kind of coming have we had in mind? Probably we have thought of a wonderful, humble and gracious coming. True, as far as it goes. But did we envision a coming with terror? Yes, I did say “terror.” While the name “Immanuel” points to a wonderful and gracious salvation, it also points to a mighty and terrible destruction. This is because God saves his people by destroying their enemies. All of the great saving events of the Old and New Testaments include salvation for the humble and destruction of the proud. Think of Noah’s flood, Israel’s exodus and conquest of Canaan, and Jesus’ Second Advent. God’s people are not saved unless he destroys their enemies. The prophet Isaiah had this reality in mind when he introduced the name “Immanuel” into biblical literature.

While King Ahaz of Judah was facing an attack by Syria and Israel, Isaiah called him to trust in the LORD. Ahaz refused. Upon that unbelief the LORD gave him a sign: Immanuel. A son would be born and called by that name, indicating that the LORD had come to be with his people.

“The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah – the king of Assyria.” (Isaiah 7:17)

Make no mistake: God being with his people meant  he would destroy, by means of Assyria, the proud who trusted in man and deliver the humble who trusted in him.

“Because this people have refused the waters of Shiloh that flow gently, and rejoice over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, therefore, behold, the Lord is bringing up against them the waters of the River, mighty and many, the king of Assyria and all his glory.” (Isaiah 8:6-7)

This coming would bring both “destruction” and “overflowing righteousness”; destruction of the proud unbelievers who oppressed the poor and overflowing righteousness for the humble who looked to the LORD. (You may read more about this in Isaiah 9 & 10)

While Isaiah’s words had a near fulfillment in his own day, they pointed ultimately to a Son who would come to bring final salvation to his people. This Immanuel would be like the first; he would save his people from their enemies. That salvation could only happen by destroying those enemies which included not only sin, death and the Devil, but also their human oppressors. In 70 A.D. Immanuel destroyed the proud and wicked generation of Jews. His remnant survived and spread the good news around the Roman Empire. Destruction…overflowing with righteousness.

As we celebrate the coming of the King of Kings, it is right for us to sing “O Come, O Come, Immanuel.” But let us remember that his coming was both wonderful and terrible. There is no other way the One and only, holy God could come and save his people from their sins.

Christmas Day, 2012