Painting a Clear Picture of God: Lessons from the Protestant Reformation

Modern man does not like to think of God in terms of wrath, anger and judgment. He likes to make God according to his own ideas and give God the characteristics he wants Him to possess. Man tries to remake God to conform to his own wishful thinking, so that he can make himself comfortable in his sins.
Billy Graham

Key point: Fearing God is a first step toward being made right with Him.

The Protestant Reformation, which we have discussed in recent posts, has countless lessons for believers today. In this article, I’d like to hone in on five, all of which are related.

With a retelling of Martin Luther’s conversion story as a backdrop, we’ll make some fresh observations. You can access a brief account of Luther’s spiritual journey here.

Against the historical historical and biographical backdrop of Martin Luther’s journey to peace with God, I’d like to highlight five principles that ring true down through the centuries to our day.

A Diligent Search and a Priceless Discovery

First, Martin Luther’s salvation experience is a testimony to the principle we see so clearly in Jeremiah 29:13. God declared to his people, You “will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.”


And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.
—the Lord to His people in Jeremiah 29:13—


Jeremiah on the ruins of Jerusalem by Horace Vernet, 1844

We should understand that this verse is part of a message God sent through Jeremiah to “the remainder of the elders who were carried away captive—to the priests, the prophets, and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jer. 29:1). Even so, it is not an unreasonable stretch to see in verse 13 an application with regard to salvation and forgiveness of sins. Similarly, Isaiah 55:6-7 states,

6 Seek the Lord while He may be found,
Call upon Him while He is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way,
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
Let him return to the Lord,
And He will have mercy on him;
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon.

Fearing God Is a Key Step to Finding Him

Saint Paul, by Bartolomeo Montagna, 1481

Second—and we must not miss this point—Martin Luther sought peace with God because he was afraid of Him. He knew he was a sinner destined for hell and was compelled to search desperately for divine forgiveness and peace. Luther’s good and noble works didn’t resolve his situation one bit; but all the confessions, prayers, acts of penitence, occasions of fasting, and other disciplines indicated just how earnest he was. Honoring Luther’s search, God, in His grace and mercy, brought Martin to a clear understanding of the liberating truth about salvation. No one can earn it. Rather, it is a free gift received by relying on Christ and the sufficiency of His substitutionary death to pay the penalty for one’s sins. The key verse for Luther in this revelation, as we have seen, was Romans 1:17. In this verse, Paul quoted from Habakkuk 2:4: “The just shall live by his faith.”

Third, the American evangelical church today, as we indicated in items 6, 7, and 86 of our 95 Theses for the Protestant Evangelical Church in the 21st Century, tends to present a lopsided view of God.

  • The church has emphasized God’s love to the point of effectively neglecting his holiness and wrath.
  • The church says very little about hell, yet hell is very real.
  • The church, through a variety of actions and inactions, promotes the idea that God can be approached in a thoroughly casual fashion. Note that this failure is not tied exclusively to music styles or lyrics.

In using the word casual in this last point, I am not at all arguing against the principle that sinners must come as they are to God, with all of their sin, and rely fully on Jesus’ death and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit for cleansing. I am saying we must never take God’s grace for granted (see Isa. 1:18; John 3:5-8; 1 Tim. 2:5; Rom. 2:4; 1 Pet. 3:18).

Many people say, “God is a God of love who never would send anyone to hell.” Where have they gotten this idea? Ultimately, it is a lie from Satan, but regardless of the avenues through which Satan propagates this distortion, the church seems to make little or no effort to correct it, even among its own people. Yes, God is a God of love, but He also is a holy and just God who must punish sin (go here and here).

Bad News; Good News

Scene from The Last Judgment by Michelangelo

Believers, both individually and corporately, need to present the truth about God’s love and holiness. Yet—and this is our fourth point—we seem to have failed to understand that the good news of the gospel can be seen for how wonderful it is only against the backdrop of its bad news about sin, accountability to a holy God, and certain judgment. Again, God is holy and perfect, and He must judge sin. As we say in our presentation of how to become a Christian, “While we might not think of our violations as being all that extreme, even the smallest infraction in our eyes is enough to make us guilty before God. The penalty for sin is death—and not just physical death, but spiritual death, eternal separation from God forever (see Matt. 7:23; 25:41,46; see these verses in context here; also see Rom. 6:23).”

Oh, we don’t like this! Christian apologist Greg Koukl explains,

It is hard to imagine anything in religion more repugnant to people than the wrath of God, and it is easy to see why.…

[For one thing, t]he notion of a “vengeful” God strikes us as inconsistent with a God of love. This seems right at first, but the complaint is based on a misunderstanding. God’s love is not a thing in itself, so to speak, but is tied, like all of his attributes, to his goodness, the very goodness we are inclined to question when evil runs rampant. “Why doesn’t God do something?” we wonder. Yet we cry foul when we learn God will do something decisive about evil and we are the evildoers.”1

Later in his book, Koukl shows how God’s love, God’s wrath, and Jesus’ death are intertwined.

Jesus came to earth to save sinners. The statement is so common to our ears, it is easy to miss its significance. Save means to “rescue from imminent danger.” Jesus came to rescue us because we were in danger. What was the danger? What was Jesus rescuing from? Here is the answer. Jesus did not come to rescue us from our ignorance or our poverty or our oppressors or even from ourselves. Jesus came to rescue us from the Father.2

Remember, the King is angry. He is the one who is offended. He is the one who is owed. He is the Sovereign we have rebelled against, the father we have disobeyed, the friend we have betrayed. And that is a dangerous place for us to be. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul, but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Later in the Story we learn, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”3

But we’d much rather talk about God’s love—and that’s what we do! While the Church in the 16th century made the mistake of emphasizing God’s wrath over His love (and didn’t really talk about His wrath in full accordance with biblical teaching), the church today is making the opposite mistake. We do need to talk about God’s love, but in the context of a proper emphasis on His justice and wrath.

Let’s learn a lesson from history. Despite all the distortions of biblical truths about God for which the Church in Martin Luther’s day was responsible, Luther was right to fear Him. In the end, he benefited from this fear because God used it to help him discover the truth that ultimately set him free.

Lightstock

Advocating a Healthy Fear of God

Let me be clear. I am not advocating or affirming the view of God that prevailed in 16th-century Europe. I am saying the church needs to rediscover a healthy fear of God. This is our fifth point.

“But God’s kindness leads us to repentance!” someone might say, citing Romans 2:4—and he or she would be right. Even so, the context for this verse conveys in unambiguous terms that God is holy and divine judgment is certain.

That isn’t all. Read these verses carefully.

  • The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. A good understanding have all those who do His commandments.His praise endures forever” (Psalm 111:10).
  • The fear of the LORD isthe beginning of knowledge,
    But fools despise wisdom and instruction (Prov. 1:7).
  • The fear of the LORD isthe beginning of wisdom,
    And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (Prov. 9:10).

In each of these verses, the same Hebrew word is used for the English word fear.

May the church rediscover, preach, and proclaim a healthy fear of Almighty God!

 

A quick review:

  1. Martin Luther’s salvation experience is a testimony to the principle we see so clearly in Jeremiah 29:13. God declared to his people, You “will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.”
  2. Martin Luther sought peace with God because he was afraid of Him.
  3. The American evangelical church today tends to present a lopsided view of God. Its emphasis on God’s love overshadows any affirmation of His holiness and wrath.
  4. The church apparently has failed to understand that the good news of the gospel can be seen for how wonderful it is only against the backdrop of its bad news about sin, accountability to a holy God, and certain judgment.
  5. The church the church needs to rediscover and preach a healthy fear of God.

 

Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Scriptures marked NASB are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Notes:

1Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality: How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important that Happens in Between, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 97.

2At this point, Koukl provides this clarification in a footnote: “Jesus saves us from the Father, but His intention is not at odds with the Father since it was the Father who out of love, sent Jesus to rescue the world in the first place.”

3Koukl, 117. Scripture quotations are from Matthew 10:28 and Hebrews 10:31, respectively, New American Standard Bible.

image credit: top image: www.lightstock.com

Echoes of the Reformation

We must realize that the Reformation world view leads in the direction of government freedom. But the humanist world view with inevitable certainty leads in the direction of statism. This is so because humanists, having no god, must put something at the center, and it is inevitably society, government, or the state.
Francis Schaeffer

Key point: As in Martin Luther’s day, if one’s conscience is held captive to God’s Word, then to go against it is neither right nor safe.

 

Martin Luther is believed by many to have posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517. Even if he didn’t nail them there, his list of concerns about Catholic Church practices originally was written in Latin, but it was translated into German and disseminated throughout Luther’s home country within a scant two weeks. The printing press, which had been invented less than 100 years earlier, made this possible. By the end of 1517, all of Europe had access to the 95 Theses in pamphlet form.

The disenchantment and frustration with the church over its abuses grew even more intense as a growing number of people learned of Dr. Luther’s objections. Within a few years, the Protestant Reformation had become a widespread movement.

Frederick the Wise of Saxony

On June 15, 1520, Pope Leo X issued a papal bull, or edict, refuting Luther’s teachings and demanding that he renounce them. The Wittenberg professor refused, and a few months later, on December 10, publicly burned a copy of the Pope’s declaration. On January 3, 1521, Luther was excommunicated in Rome.

Luther had a ally in his powerful sovereign, Elector of Saxony Frederick the Wise. Frederick demanded a hearing for Luther. An assembly, called a “Diet,” was scheduled for April 17  in the town of Worms (pronounced “Verms”), Germany.

Two Searing Questions

Martin Luther was a controversial figure—loved my many, yet hated by many others. On the first day of the Diet, Luther was asked two questions.

  • Were the books and other writings on display before the assembly his? He admitted they were.
  • Would he or would he not recant? The renegade professor asked for a day to consider the matter, and his request was granted.
John Huss at the Council of Constance

Luther knew his life was at stake in these proceedings, even though he had been granted safe passage (transport) by Emperor Charles V. One hundred years before, John Huss had attempted to address similar concerns in the church and had been burned at the stake. What would happen to Luther if he, like Huss, were to refuse to renounce his views? Huss, too, had been guaranteed safe passage to the Council of Constance, where he was tried, found to be a heretic, and condemned to die. Obviously, Huss’s guarantee of safety was withdrawn.

Emperor Charles V

The next day Luther again stood before Charles V. Would he now recant? Luther explained that his books and other writings could not be placed in a single category. Even his critics, Luther said, welcomed some of them, and he would not retract what he’d said in those. A second category of works addressed abuses that were occurring within the Church. Luther contended he could not change his mind about these without risking a continuation of the very abuses he had opposed. Finally, other writings, he said, were about certain people. Although he expressed regret for the harsh tone of some of these, he did not retract any of the teachings they contained.

Here I Stand

Challenged at this point to give a direct positive or negative answer to the question of whether or not he would recant, Luther is said to have declared,

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well-known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.

Even if Martin Luther didn’t utter these words exactly, they represent the substance of his response. Disorder erupted, and the Emperor brought the Diet’s proceedings for that day to an end. Officials were divided about what steps to take next, but on May 26, they issued an edict that branded Luther a heretic and banned his writings. Now he was an outlaw, and it generally was understood that he soon would be arrested and punished. Execution, of course, was a real possibility.

Luther, however, had gone into hiding before the Edict of Worms could be drawn up and published. Frederick the Wise of Saxony had arranged for the Wittenberg professor to be “kidnapped” and hidden at Wartburg Castle. It was there that Luther began translating the Greek New Testament into German. This volume would fan the flames of the Reformation as would no other book.

Luther’s Bible, 1534

Our Consciences Are Captive to God’s Word

The entire story is fascinating, and I urge you to learn more about the Protestant Reformation. For now, let’s reflect on Martin Luther’s refusal to recant at the Diet of Worms. Read again his declaration.

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well-known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.

This is the kind of conviction we need to see in 21st America today. Dr. Erwin Lutzer, Pastor Emeritus of Moody Church in Chicago, said as much on the morning of October 8, 2017 at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, in this presentation. Here is an audio clip of his words.

I have good news for Dr. Lutzer, although I must hasten to qualify it.

  • The qualifier, of course, is that we do not have enough people like these! We need many more—and we need many more Christians who comprehend and appreciate the stands these Christian statesmen are taking. Also, we need many more who will stand with them.

Just as the Word of God guided Martin Luther to a clear understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ, so too has Scripture guided these men and women to a clear understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ as it relates to, among other things, the true meaning of marriage. You see, marriage is all about the gospel!

“But wait!” someone will object. These people and their convictions are controversial! Yes, they are. Martin Luther was controversial too, and so was Jesus!

Controversy is not the issue, but adherence to the truth of God’s Word.


I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.
—Martin Luther—


Remember—especially if it is held captive by the Bible, it is neither right nor safe to go against one’s conscience.

If we as believers will stand together on the Word of God, speaking the truth lovingly and with conviction but refusing to renounce any of our core beliefs, we just might have another Reformation on our hands!

 

Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

95 Theses for the Protestant Evangelical Church in the 21st Century

October 31, 2017 is the 500th anniversary of an action that sparked a movement that changed the world. On All Saint’s Eve in 1517, Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, Germany. The document challenged the Roman Catholic Church with regard to its abuse of authority and departure from biblical teachings.

1509 woodcut of the Wittenberg Castle Church

Today, 500 years later, the American evangelical church needs a reformation of its own. I do not pretend to be a second Martin Luther, but out of love for God, love for the church, and a love for truth, I am compelled to offer my own list of

95 Theses for the Protestant Evangelical Church in the 21st Century.

It’s important to note that these trends and practices are not evident in all Protestant evangelical churches, but in many of them—and in some cases most of them—they are.

Recalling Lincoln’s words, “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” let us work for biblical change where it is sorely needed. May God purify, bless, and direct His church in these challenging days!

Soli Deo Gloria!

—B. Nathaniel Sullivan, October 31, 2017—


 

For years I have spoken about what I consider to be the worldliness of the liberal churches, accusing them of four things: pursuing the world’s wisdom, embracing the world’s theology, following the world’s agenda, and employing the world’s methods. What has hit me like a thunderbolt in recent years is that what I had been saying about the liberal churches at the end of the 1960s and in the 1970s now needs to be said about the evangelical churches as well, since many of them have become as liberal as the larger mainline denominations before them.…Evangelicals have embraced worldliness in the same ways that it was embraced by the liberal churches.
James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000)—

 

  1. The church has focused on attracting people and keeping people, and it has failed to challenge them. This corresponding “focus and failure” often is manifested in the church’s efforts to entertain. Chuck Swindoll said, “Some time ago a group of church leaders decided that they didn’t want to be hated. They focused just on attracting more and more people.” He also said, Today, “many churches masquerade as entertainment centers, where the leadership primarily concerns itself with making people feel good.”1 These teachings of Jesus are excellent examples of the kinds of challenges believers need.
  2. The church has equated loving people with not offending them (see Mark 10:17-22; Eph. 4:11-16).
  3. One specific manifestation of this last point can be found in the church’s reluctance to uphold biblical marriage for fear of offending those who have been divorced, those who have been divorced and remarried, and homosexuals and their friends and loved ones (see Hebrews 13:4 NIV). Here is an exception; the exception, however, does not negate the rule. We will consider the matter of the institution of marriage more fully in items 51 through 63.
  4. The church has failed to address the issue that represents the front lines of spiritual warfare today—homosexuality. The Bible is clear about this issue, but the culture sends a completely different message. Not only is there an urgent need to encourage, assist, and equip homosexuals’ loved ones (especially parents) to cope with and deal appropriately with the challenges they and their families face, but there also is a critical need to help everyone dealing directly with this issue within themselves, from those struggling with same-sex attraction to the person who identifies and lives as gay. See these helpful websites for more information—here and here.
  5. The church tends to focus on how to help its members succeed and achieve fulfillment rather than how to pursue godliness and engage unchurched people with the gospel (see 1 Tim. 6:6-16; James 1:27; 1 John 2:15; Mark 16:15).
  6. The church has emphasized God’s love to the point of effectively neglecting His holiness and wrathHyper-grace churches manifest this trend most strongly, but many others lean in this perilous direction.
  7. The church says very little about hell, yet hell is very real. Vance Havner once said, “When I pastored a country church, a farmer didn’t like the sermons I preached on hell. He said, ‘Preach about the meek and lowly Jesus.’ I said, ‘That’s where I got my information about hell.’”
  8. Related to point #7, in its evangelistic presentations, the church emphasizes the themes of purpose and meaning in life and fails to appropriately uphold the certainty of God’s judgment of sins.
  9. The church has endeavored to win converts and failed to make disciples.
  10. The church has upheld the benefits of salvation and avoided talking about its demands. Here are a few of them (also go here and here).
  11. All too often, the church has emphasized that salvation comes through faith without clarifying that saving faith must have a specific object. This omission has contributed to a critical lack of understanding of biblical faith. This failure has several aspects to it. The church has neglected to emphasize, among other things, the truths reflected in items 12-14.
  12. Strictly speaking, it is not faith that saves, but faith in Jesus Christ and His substitutionary work on the cross to pay for humanity’s sins.
  13. Furthermore, biblical faith isn’t just believing in one’s head the truth about Jesus’ death; it is actively relying on Him as sufficient to save, and relying on His death as adequate payment for one’s sins before a holy God.
  14. In addition, the Christian faith is not a blind faith, but a reasonable faith that is warranted by adequate evidence. Watch speaker and author Jonathan Morrow explain what biblical faith is. Christian apologist Greg Koukl gives a more thorough explanation in this article.
  15. The church quotes Ephesians 2:8-9 while ignoring the “good works” portion of the context of this passage—verse 10 (see 2:8-10). Salvation is free—a gift from God. However, once we partake of it, we become the property of Jesus Christ. That truth has profound implications for the way we live our lives.
  16. The church has failed to acknowledge or emphasize the principle found in James 1:27: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
  17. The church effectively has redefined the word worship. This term used to apply to every part of the church service; now it refers exclusively to music.
  18. The church has presented Christianity in terms of its implications for individuals alone and overlooked its benefits for the culture.
  19. While recognizing that Jesus was compassionate, loving, and kind, the church has largely ignored the fact that He was controversial.
  20. The church has failed to emphasize the true meaning of repentance and the critical need for believers to live holy lives.
  21. The church has failed to stress the need for repentance in its evangelistic presentations.
  22. The church has failed to see just how serious it is that followers of Christ are at war with the forces of evil.
  23. The church has failed to equip God’s people for spiritual warfare. Moreover, it hasn’t effectively engaged in spiritual warfare itself. Usually it fights defensively and rarely is on the offense. This is not how Jesus portrayed the church. In warfare, both offensive and defensive maneuvers are essential.
  24. The church has failed to understand that the forces of evil never will be appeased (also go here).
  25. The church has failed to understand the ominous implications of a belief that random processes resulted in the origin of life, and eventually humanity. The idea that these processes gave rise to life, especially human life, has atheistic implications. In other words, the church has failed to understand the self-contradictory nature of the idea that God used random processes in creating the world and humanity. Any processes that are directed by God cannot truly be random.
  26. The church has been quick to try to make Scripture fit the so-called “scientific evidence” for an old earth rather than weighing the theological implications for an old earth and acknowledging its problems. For example, if the earth is millions of years old and “evolutionary” processes led to man’s existence over a super-long period, then death must have entered the world before humanity sinned. This is not what Scripture teaches.
  27. Yet ironically, the church has failed to emphasize scientificarchaeological, and historical (also go here) evidences for the reliability of the Scriptures. The principle of “Sola Scriptura,” or “Scripture alone” does not preclude pointing to evidence of the Bible’s reliability. In fact, it welcomes it.
  28. In relation to item 27, it is no wonder Christians compartmentalize their faith, treating it as applicable only to things that have been deemed “religious.” The church has modeled how!
  29. The church has failed to understand that taking a stand for righteousness, even though it is unpopular at the moment and can incite accusations of hatred and bigotry, actually can attract people to the Christian faith. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “When the church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.”
  30. The church has failed to understand the important role of apologetics in winning converts.
  31. The church has failed to understand the important role of apologetics in making disciples, including those who are teens and young adults.
  32. The church has failed to understand and defend the biblical nature of truth.
  33. The church thinks in terms of individual issues rather than foundational belief systems from which the issues arise. In other words, for the most part, the church neither understands worldviews nor thinks in terms of the biblical worldview. The situation is urgent. Church leaders must become proficient in the biblical worldview to a point of being able to train its people in it. Here is an article introducing the subject. Here is an informative video that explains.
  34. The church has failed, even in appropriate contexts, to affirm America’s Christian heritage and to show the relationship between this country’s affirmation of Christian truth and the freedoms its people have enjoyed (here is but one example). Patriotism as expressed on holidays like Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day does not count, because such patriotism is not the same thing educating the people about America’s Christian heritage.
  35. The church has failed to train its members to be good citizens. This includes but is not limited to failing to emphasize the principles set forth in items 36 through 42.
  36. Any government’s authority is delegated by God and therefore not absolute.
  37. The primary role of government is to promote order by affirming right behavior and punishing wrong behavior.
  38. Rights are God-given. Here is but one example. Government is not authorized to bestow rights; nor is it authorized to take them away. It is responsible to protect and maintain them.
  39. Rights from a biblical perspective are freedoms that afford citizens opportunities; not “entitlements” that result when governments engineer outcomes. The former are referred to by social scientists as “negative rights”; the latter as “positive rights.”
  40. Governments overstep their God-given authority and trample on the legitimate negative rights of their citizens when they seek to implement positive rights for a select few.  Obergefell, the Supreme Court decision that redefined marriage nationwide, is a prime example of judicial overreach.
  41. Biblically speaking, governments are responsible to protect and preserve God-given rights. For a thorough study of rights from a biblical perspective, go here.
  42. The church always has a duty to promote the ideals of righteousness and to eschew evil within and outside its walls, but this is especially true when government no longer understands the difference between right and wrong behaviors.
  43. The church has failed to understand the difference between liberalism and leftism, and it has failed to see the threat that leftism poses to its own work and ministry.
  44. The church has all too often used the excuse that an issue should not be addressed because “it is political.” Since when does the fact that an issue is being discussed in Washington or in the halls of local government move it off the table for discussion by church leaders and congregants?
  45. The church has been all too quick to support non-controversial charities and ministries while being basically unwilling to support and participate in biblical, but controversial, ministries and efforts.
  46. The church has failed to understand, appreciate, and teach the biblical concept of civil disobedience—what it is, its biblical and historical bases, and when and why it may be necessary.
  47. The church has essentially neglected the fight to preserve religious liberty in the United States, including the fight to preserve laws and policies that make civil disobedience unnecessary. The names of champions of religious liberty like Barronelle Stutzman, Aaron and Melissa Klein, Jack Phillips, Carl and Angel LarsenJoanna Duka and Breanna Koski, and others should be on the lips of evangelical Christians everywhere, but most believers don’t have a clue as to who these people are. Jack Phillips’s case will be heard at the Supreme Court on December 5, 2017.
  48. “But the church just needs to ‘stick to evangelism,’” someone will say. “Only the gospel can change people’s minds and hearts.” When seen against the backdrop of a clear understanding of what is really happening in our culture, these statements demonstrate that the church, as well as individual Christians, need to think of evangelism in broader terms.
  49. The church has failed to see the connection between the threat to conscience rights (as in the cases represented by the names mentioned in item #47) and its own right and the right of individual Christians to share the gospel.
  50. The church, generally speaking, has failed to become aware of and failed to educate her people about the legal work involved in preserving and defending marriage, life, and religious liberty. Groups like Alliance Defending FreedomLiberty Counsel, the American Center for Law and Justice,” the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Rutherford Institute, and the Pacific Justice Institute are on the front lines in these important battles. The church must encourage and support them. We said earlier the church needs to see evangelism in broader terms (see item #48). This includes being engaged in the fight for religious liberty and supporting in appropriate ways organizations that are on the front lines.
  51. While being ready and willing to help couples improve their individual marriages, the church has been not just reluctant, but all too often silent in defending and upholding the institution of marriage as one man and one woman committed to each other for life. Hebrews 13:4 does not say, “Marriages should be honored by all,” but “Marriage should be honored by all” (emphasis added). The Bible does not just affirm marriages, but also marriage as an institution.
  52. While it’s true that same-sex parents can be, and often are, very loving; and while they absolutely do meet a great many of their adopted children’s needs, the church has failed to speak for the children of same-sex parents regarding a critical need that all of them have and that no same-sex couple ever can meet—the need for both a mother and a father.
  53. The church has failed to understand the strong connections between marriage and the gospel.
  54. Related to the above item, the church has failed to understand that one of the most important ways to uphold and advance the gospel is to uphold the biblical definition of marriage, because…
  55. …it has failed to see that losing the definition of marriage as a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman means losing a means by which non-Christians—including the individual who appears to be totally uninterested in the Christian faith—can get a glimpse of the gospel.
  56. The church has failed to emphasize evidence that God Himself designed marriage. This includes but is not limited to its failure to emphasize, in appropriate contexts and ways, the principles set forth in items 57 through 61.
  57. Marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, attested to by the way the male and female bodies fit together physically, in sexual intercourse.
  58. Marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, attested to by the way the male and female bodies work together during and immediately after sexual intercourse to enhance the chances of pregnancy.
  59. Marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, attested to by the fact that only a heterosexual union can result in a pregnancy and the birth of a child.
  60. Marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, attested to by the theological truths that (1) God created both males and females in His image, (2) men and women are different, and (3) in marriage a man and woman can present to the world and to their children a more complete picture of God. This includes depictions of unity and diversity within the triune Godhead, as well as God’s attribute of faithfulness.
  61. Marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, attested to by the fact that marriage is a picture of Christ’s relationship with His bride, the church.
  62. The church has failed to teach the next generation of Christians (teenagers and young adults) the rich theology of marriage and why, from theological and biblical perspectives, marriage can only be the lifelong commitment of one man and one woman.
  63. The church naïvely assumed that with the definition of marriage redefined, gay rights activists now have what they want and hopefully they will allow Christians to follow their religious convictions in this matter. Princeton Professor Robert George refutes this assumption in this clip from a 2015 speech. (See item #24.)
  64. Even as it has expressed legitimate concerns about the need to reach younger people with the gospel, and even as it has made efforts to do so, the church has all too often failed to appreciate history and heritage, including the contributions of its own faithful senior adults. Throughout Israel’s history, God established reminders to help His people recall His mighty deeds. It’s also important to be familiar with church history. Apart from the Lord’s Supper, the evangelical American church has very few “memorial stones.” This does not make the establishment of memorials an ordinance like the Lord’s Supper, but God’s people surely need reminders of His past blessings.
  65. The church apparently is content to teach Bible stories to children without emphasizing that the stories represent events that really occurred. In fact, the term story often carries an unintended connotation at church. A great many stories a child hears didn’t really happen. Bible stories, however, are different and should be presented as historically true.
  66. The church has failed to understand and educate its people about the difference between biblical justice and social justice, a term that essentially means government redistribution of wealth to achieve desired outcomes.
  67. The church honors celebrities rather than servants.
  68. The church has ignored its duty to issue biblical warnings to the culture or to its own people.
  69. The church has failed to appropriately emphasize that Christian training is primarily the responsibility of the home—not the church. The church has a role, certainly, but it is a supplemental and supportive role—one that involves, but is not limited to, coaching and equipping parents. The church never can provide adequate Christian training when it is lacking at home.
  70. The church speaks of “full-time Christian service” as if ministry vocations were the only avenues to serve God through one’s vocation. Actually, every honest vocation is an avenue for Christian service and ministry. J. Gresham Machen declared, “For Christians to influence the world with the truth of God’s Word requires the recovery of the great Reformation doctrine of vocation. Christians are called to God’s service not only in church professions but also in every secular calling. The task of restoring truth to the culture depends largely on our laypeople.”
  71. The church has failed to emphasize that God didn’t just reveal Himself through the prophets, His Word, and His Son, but also in various divine acts in history. This is important because it underscores that God is engaged in the “big picture” of what is happening in the world, not just in individuals’ lives.
  72. The church has failed to adequately educate its people regarding the facts and lessons from church history—not just in Acts, but beyond it as well. There are appropriate times and places for churches to do this. This doesn’t mean abandoning Scripture. In fact, studying what God has done in the past is one way we teach lessons learned in history about the Bible and Christianity as a whole. The Protestant Reformation, for example, is brimming with these kinds of lessons. In this one-minute audio clip, Dr. Erwin Lutzer, Pastor of the Moody Church in Chicago for 36 years, explains the importance of knowing church history.
  73. The church is more interested in being liked than in being respected for its convictions.
  74. The church appears to equate success with large numbers, and failure with small or declining numbers. Jesus gained followers during His ministry, but He also lost them. Moreover, He had just 12 in His inner circle, and one of those betrayed Him—yet the eleven who were left changed the world.
  75. The church has failed to comprehend or address the problem of biblical illiteracy. It must do so.
  76. The church has failed to understand and train its people in solid principles of biblical interpretation. Here are a few such principles.
  77. The church typically does not encourage its people to read good books. Great books, however, challenge God’s people to love Him with all our minds. Go here,  herehere, and, here for a few suggestions.
  78. The church has failed to encourage the study of the lives of great Christians (also go here).
  79. The church has been too willing to jettison hymns from its worship services.
  80. The church has failed to see the value of hymns in teaching deep theological truths to God’s people, including the next generation of Christians.
  81. Without any biblical justification, the church darkens its sanctuaries, hiding natural, God-given light and even turning down electrical lighting. Does it do this to create a more “intimate” atmosphere? This is worldly thinking. This is what nightclubs do. This is not to say the lights never should dimmed, but to dim the lights as a habitual pattern seems contrary to the spirit and message of 1 John 1:5: “This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.”
  82. In its worship services, the church tends to cultivate and present an atmosphere of upbeat celebration and effectively neglects the need for qualities such as fear and awe in the hearts of its people before God.
  83. The church selects music for its services that is, generally speaking, upbeat and celebratory in sprit and tone. There is a place for this, but this type of music should not be used exclusively.
  84. Typically, if a hymn is sung, it is a hymn in a major key. There should be room in worship service for the more serious moods elicited by hymns written in minor keys.
  85. Typically, if a church uses a contemporary style of music in its services, if hymns are sung at all, they have been “retooled” with a new tune, a new rhythm, the addition of a musical bridge, or some other new feature. On what basis are all other hymns jettisoned and never used at all? Read “8 Reasons the Worship Industry Is Killing Worship.”
  86. Related to items 82 through 85, the church, through a variety of actions and inactions, promotes the idea that God can be approached in a thoroughly casual fashion. Note that this failure is not tied exclusively to music styles or lyrics.
  87. The church has lost the ability to avoid applauding after a baptism or musical presentation. Sometimes, however, silent reflection (also see Psalm 37:7, CSB) and meditation are the most appropriate responses to these and other elements in the worship service.
  88. The church has abandoned a specific time for Scripture reading as a part of its worship services. Yes, the pastor or preacher usually will read Scripture as a part of his sermon, but as a general rule, a separate time of Scripture reading no longer is  planned.
  89. Generally speaking, responsive readings of the Scripture no longer are a part of worship services in the American evangelical church.
  90. Personal testimonies are presented less frequently in worship services today than in years past.
  91. The reporting of God’s work around the world must not be neglected, and all too frequently, it is.
  92. Fearing that they might offend Christian parents who send their children to public schools, Christian educators who teach in the public school system, or other Christians involved in the public school system in some way, church leaders have failed to become knowledgeable and to warn parents about the powerful evil influences their children will encounter and are encountering in public schools. While it clearly is not the job of the church to dictate to parents where and how to educate their children, the church does have a duty to inform, encourage, equip, and warn parents and families when the danger is real—and it is real. Go here for more information.
  93. Related to item #92, the militant LGBT movement is targeting America’s children and is succeeding in indoctrinating them. The movement is using America’s institutions, including the public schools, in their quest. The church has failed to educate itself regarding this specific threat, has failed to warn parents, and has failed to equip them to protect their children from the onslaught. Again, for more information go herehere, and here.
  94. In part because of love of various college athletic teams and in part to refrain from offending supporters of various schools and Christian families who are involved in them, the church has failed to warn parents, older students, and young adults about the evil influences surrounding students in both public and private colleges in America. Go hereherehere, and here for more information.
  95. The church has failed to stand with and pray regularly for its persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

Recommended reading: 10 Theses for a New (Critically Needed) Reformation by Dr. Michael Brown

Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.

Note:

1Charles R. Swindoll, Hope for Our Troubled Times, (Plano, TX: Insight for Living, 2009), 8.

Unless otherwise noted,  Scripture passages are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture passages marked CSB are taken from The Christian Standard Bible, copyright © 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers. Christian Standard Bible®, and CSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers, all rights reserved.

Scripture passages marked NIV are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

image credits: top image, hymn, and statue: www.lightstock.com

 

 

 

Igniting Reform—Then and Now

Tormented by the fear that he never would be able to please God and be admitted into heaven, Augustinian monk Martin Luther immersed himself in a host of spiritual disciplines, including prayer, fasting, and the ascetic practices of flogging himself, denying himself sleep, and staying out in frigid temperatures without a blanket or other adequate cover. Luther said, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I.”

Martin Luther, in a portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Initially, Luther’s study of Scripture only reinforced the terror he felt at the thought of standing before a holy God. Romans 1:17 later would bring him relief, assurance, and hope. The passage declares, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,  just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” Martin didn’t yet see that faith comes before righteousness. Focusing on the last portion of the verse — “the righteous will live by faith,” — Luther felt condemned. He knew he wasn’t righteous. How, then, could he live by faith?


For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,  just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
—The apostle Paul in his letter to the Roman Christians, in what we now know as Romans 1:17—


Luther became a professor at the University of Wittenberg. In 1513 and 1514 he presented lectures on the Book of Psalms. He also continued studying Paul’s letter to the Romans—and then the truth of Paul’s words dawned on him. Luther later would testify,

Day and night I was pondering this question: What about this gift of righteousness given in response to faith? When I began to see that there is a righteousness you receive by sheer faith, and I receive that righteousness, it was as if I walked through the gates of Paradise.


When I began to see that there is a righteousness you receive by sheer faith, and I receive that righteousness, it was as if I walked through the gates of Paradise.
—Martin Luther—


Faith in Christ, Luther learned, comes first, and then righteousness—a righteousness from God appropriated by faith—follows. It was a liberating insight, the first of many. Martin Luther would share his insights in his role of priest for Wittenberg’s Castle Church, which he assumed in 1514. People flocked to hear him.

Portrait of Leo X by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino

We should remember that at that time there was only one Church—the Catholic Church headquartered in Rome. Leo X was the Pope. Martin Luther began to see clearly a host of ways the Church had been abusing its power and authority. He came to understand that God, not the Church, had the authority to dispense salvation and forgiveness. Yet through the sale of “indulgences” the Church was raising money for various building projects. Buy an indulgence for yourself or a loved one, the Church claimed throughout its spokesman-salesman Johann Tetzel, and you will have brought forgiveness to yourself or to another. The purchase of an indulgence, Tetzel declared, even could free a departed loved one from purgatory!

Luther could not reconcile these teachings with Scripture, and he drew up a list of 95 statements that refuted the Church’s teachings and practices and presented the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Three other doctrines that would arise from the Reformation are Scripture alone, Christ alone, and to the glory of God alone. These are called the “five solas,” since sola in Latin means “alone.”

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on what essentially was the University’s bulletin board—the door of the Wittenberg Church.

A Printing Press, depicted in a 1568 woodcut

The printing press, which had been invented during the previous century, made it possible for news to spread quickly and reliably—and Luther’s 95 Theses went viral. It was the spark that ignited the Protestant Reformation, a movement of which you and I are direct beneficiaries even today, 500 years later (also go here).

This coming Tuesday, October 31, 2017, is indeed the 500th anniversary of Luther’s act of posting his 95 statements challenging the Church with regard to its abuses and its departures from Scriptural truth and practice.

I encourage you to learn more about Martin Luther, other Reformers, and the Protestant Reformation as a whole. Here are a few resources you might find helpful.

Now, fast forward 500 years. Yes, we still are benefiting from the Protestant Reformation, but it is becoming increasingly evident that the evangelical church in the 21st century needs a reformation of its own. The abuses and problems aren’t the same as those Martin Luther challenged 500 years ago, but problems are present that must be addressed.


The evangelical church in the 21st century needs a reformation of its own.


I do not pretend to be a second Martin Luther, but a variety of beliefs and practices within evangelicalism need to be challenged. The 500th anniversary of Luther’s action is a fitting occasion for me to express my concerns.

Therefore, on Tuesday, October 31, I will post my own 95 Theses for the Protestant Evangelical Church in the 21st Century.

Look for it here, at www.wordfoundations.com.

 

Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.

95 Theses for the Protestant Evangelical Church in the 21st Century

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture passages are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

top image: Hot off the press! The first two pages of Luther’s 95 Theses as a pamphlet