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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Why Did Martin Luther Start the Protestant Reformation?

A year ago today marked the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This date marked the beginning of the end of the sovereign reign of the Roman Catholic Church upon Western culture. Since this time, Christianity, which up until that point had been fairly united,[1] has taken on many different expressions and beliefs.

What most people don’t realize is that Martin Luther didn’t intend to separate himself from the Roman Catholic Church. And what most people also don’t realize are the beliefs that Luther held about God, humans, and salvation. In this article, I will be sharing why, based on my research, I believe Luther started the Protestant Reformation, and the primary way in which his soteriological (doctrine of salvation) beliefs were distinguished from those taught by the Roman Catholic Church.

Luther’s Revelation

Martin Luther was on his way to becoming a lawyer, but had a close encounter with death which frightened him into becoming an Augustinian monk. He quickly rose to become professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany.[2] But Luther was unsettled about something.

Luther strove for perfection, otherwise known as holiness. He took the monastic discipline as seriously as humanly possible. Yet, in his exhausting attempts to make himself holy, he still recognized the great magnitude of his sin compared to the righteousness of God.

To compound his distress, the gospel seemed like nothing more than bad news to a bunch of sinful people. As Luther read Paul’s letter to the Romans, this partial verse stood out to him: “In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed…”[3] Luther had been taught that this verse meant God had sent Jesus to earth to reveal the full and terrible reality of his divine righteousness, which in turn revealed the horrific state of humanity’s unrighteousness.[4] Where was the good news in this message, especially when humanity needed to “do their best,” which was first and foremost an act of the will to love God, in order to earn God’s grace and favor?[5] As Luther once wrote about this verse:
As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath![6]
The word “gospel” by definition means “good news.” How was this gospel good news?

But by God’s grace and mercy, Luther’s eyes were opened to understand Paul’s intentions when he wrote this statement. The full verse is, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”[7] As Luther then wrote:
There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith.[8]
In other words, God, although a fair and just judge, ascribes Jesus’s righteousness to his people, not because of anything they’ve done to earn to it (their unrighteousness makes them completely unworthy of it), but because he chose to do it. This means the faith by which they receive it is also a gift from God. Now, this was good news. It was good news that Jesus paid for the sins of a bunch of unrighteous sinners so that they could be offered the free gift of his righteousness.

Luther’s 95 Theses

This revelation led Luther into further questioning of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. For example, if righteousness isn’t something that can be earned, then why were people offered an opportunity to purchase indulgences from the church in order to “earn” their way out of purgatory faster? Early in 1517, Luther constructed 97 theses for debate at the university which was a common practice at the time. To Luther’s disappointment, his 97 theses garnered little attention.[9]

Later that year, on October 31, 1517, he constructed his famous 95 theses and sent a copy to his bishop and Prince Albert, one of the archbishops. A copy also fell into the hands of a man who owned a printing press who saw its marketing potential, mass produced it, and had it distributed throughout Germany. Luther’s stances in his 95 theses were relatively conservative as he spent most of it addressing the issue of selling indulgences; he did not question the authority of the pope or the existence of purgatory.[10]

Luther did not intend to separate himself from the Roman Catholic Church, but rather, he wanted to bring reform to it. But in the years shortly following, the church continued to alienate him more and more and reached a climax in 1521 at the Diet of Worms (a trial). Luther was put on the stand and asked to recant of his new beliefs. After refusing to recant, he was declared a heretic and excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.

For the rest of his life, Luther continued to alienate himself further and further from the Roman Catholic Church. He put much of the institution into question, including the authority of the pope, and even went so far as to call the Roman Catholic Church the Antichrist prophesied in the New Testament.[11]

Martin Luther’s impact continues well beyond his lifetime, specifically his doctrine of salvation. It very quickly spread throughout Europe and impacted the theology of many contemporary reformers including John Calvin, the first Protestant to write a comprehensive book of theology. Protestants owe much of their doctrinal beliefs to the work of these two men.

How has Martin Luther’s legacy impacted your life?

[1] At that time, Christianity had already suffered one major division during the schism of 1054 when the Eastern Orthodox Church broke off from the Roman Catholic Church. In Europe, the church was still united due to the quick arrest and at times, death, of all people who expressed disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church.
[2] Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 155.
[3] Romans 1:17a.
[4] Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 150.
[5] Lane, A Concise History, 155.
[6] Martin Luther, “Preface to Latin Writings,” in Luther Works, 55 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1955-76, 34:336-37.
[7] Romans 1:17.
[8] Luther, “Preface to Latin Writings,” 34:336-37.
[9] Lane, A Concise History, 155.
[10] Ibid., 156.
[11] Ibid.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

How Comfort is Robbing You of Joy

What comforts do you desire? Do you desire a temperature-controlled house? Do you desire a predictable, relaxed, stable, forty-hour-a-week job? Do you desire heated seats in your SUV? Do you desire cushy, padded seats at church? Do you desire a lightning fast computer? Do you desire clean, private restrooms? None of these things are bad things. Comfort, in general, isn’t a bad thing. It can serve to keep us healthy in many ways.

But as I evaluate my own life experiences, I observe that some of the greatest joy I’ve experienced has been during times when I’ve been the least comfortable. I experienced joy during the service-oriented trips with my high school youth group that I reluctantly attended. I experienced joy when I moved up from C league to B league in hockey. I experienced joy when I gave up my stable jobs and started my own business. I experienced joy when I gave up the comforts of Churchianity and became a missionary to the people of Findlay. Isn’t that ironic? Comfort, the very thing in which many of us trust to provide us with joy, actually seems to be robbing us of it. Let’s take a closer look.

Sandbaggers Lack Joy

Sandbagger: A player who deliberately misrepresents and downplays his ability in order to derive an advantage over his opponents. Those of you who have played recreational sports are all too familiar with these people. They find their way into lower-skilled divisions because it’s more comfortable to play there than to be pushed outside of their comfort zones in higher-skilled divisions.

Personally, I’ve played in a few recreational hockey games where my skills were quite obviously superior to the skills of the people on the other team. Honestly, those games weren’t much fun for me. I can remember one in particular where I scored a breakaway backhand shot to the top corner of the net and we handily won the game. You would’ve thought I was overjoyed with the outcome, but as I drove home that night, I felt very dissatisfied.

Why? What was wrong with me? Wasn’t the level of comfort I felt in that game, the sweet goal I scored, and the win my team achieved supposed to give me joy? Why did I still feel dissatisfied?

Conversely, in the summer of 2015, I played on a team where I was one of the least-skilled players on the ice. We lost every single game that season and I struggled to get on the scoreboard, yet I experienced a lot of joy.

Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? We would think that the more we stay in our comfort zones, the more joy and satisfaction we would experience. Yet it seems to be just the opposite. It seems that the greatest joy is found when we’re taken outside of our comfort zones.

I’ve discovered that this same principle applies throughout every area of my life. When I’ve been challenged to step outside of the comfort zone of my temperature-controlled house, stable job, and padded seat, the floodgates of joy opened around me.

God’s Role in Our Joy

I would fail to paint the entire picture here if I failed to share about God’s role in our joy. Yes, I think there is a level of joy which can be found when we overcome challenging situations. But personally, the greatest amount of joy I’ve experienced has come during times when I’ve been completely dependent on God to bring me through my challenging situations, including the strength he’s provided me to play hockey at a higher level.

I’ve heard many Christians, even in the last week, say, “God won’t give us more than we can handle.” First of all, that’s not what the Bible says. It actually says:
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.[1]
In this passage, Paul was explaining that he was burdened beyond his strength. In other words, he was given more than he could handle. But then he goes on to say that the reason he was given more than he could handle was so that he could rely on God and his strength rather than on his own strength.

And second, if Paul’s experiences are similar to those of other people, which I think they are, then it wouldn’t be in our best interest for God to allow us to continue living in our comfort zones. Paul experienced great joy in his life, even though he went through more hardship than anyone can personally handle. He survived being stoned, was flogged five times, was beaten with rods three times, was shipwrecked three times, and was in constant danger.[2] Do you think that was more than he could handle? Of course it was. But as he wrote in his letter to the Corinthian church, by facing all these hardships, he was forced to rely on God to get him through them. And it was in the process of relying on God that he found joy in God.

When we live in our comfort zones, we have no need for God. Why would we if we can do it all on our own strength? But doing things on our own strength only gives us, at best, a minimal amount of joy. It promises to completely satisfy us, but it fails every time. It’s when we trust in God’s strength to make it through and then watch him come through that we experience great amounts of joy.

Don’t let comfort continue to rob you of joy. Let God take you out of your comfort zone, watch what he can do, and soak in the joy that can be found in him.

Have you experienced this contrast between comfort and joy? In what ways might God be calling you out of your comfort zone so that he can give you more joy in him?

[1] 2 Corinthians 1:8-9.
[2] 2 Corinthians 11:23-29.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Lessons from My Current Trials

I don’t know about you, but instinctively, I hate pretty much everything having to do with confrontation. I waste way too much time thinking about exactly what I’m going to say, it emotionally drains me, and sometimes I walk away feeling worse than I did before I started. The only time I somewhat like confrontation is when it enables me and the other person to enter into a deeper relationship with one another.

In the past couple months, I’ve faced one confrontational encounter after another. One that really stands out which isn't sensitive in nature is a confrontation, or rather a series of confrontations, I had with my new wireless phone provider. They made a bunch of promises in order to get me to switch to their service, but after I signed the papers, they haven’t been the least bit concerned about whether they come through on their promises. Since signing up for their service, I’ve talked to about 10 different people to try to get everything straightened out. Absolutely ridiculous and completely draining for someone like me who hates confrontation.

If all of my recent confrontational encounters were tied back to one primary aspect of my life, such as my cell phone bill, then I probably wouldn’t have thought about it any deeper. But they’re not. I’m experiencing confrontational encounters in seemingly every area of my life.

When my series of confrontational encounters began, I saw these situations as nothing more than aggravating burdens. I held out hope that the confrontations would end soon and I could go back to living in my non-confrontational comfort zone. But after continuing to see it pop up over and over again, I began wondering if maybe there was something more to it. In the past couple days, I’ve come to recognize that my current situation is a great example of what the biblical writers were referring to when they wrote about fiery trials. I see now that God is testing me. Like a goldsmith, he’s putting me in the fire so that more of my impurities rise to the surface so that he can scrape them off and rid them from my life. I’m now seeing that these trials are not only from God, but they’re a gift he’s given me. How’s that possible?

God’s plan is to transform us completely into his image. If we were given the option to choose how this transformation happens, I think most of us would choose for God to magically bestow this transformation upon. We’d choose to go to bed at night untransformed and wake up the following morning being completely transformed. But for whatever reason, God hasn’t chosen to work that way. Instead, he’s chosen to throw us into the fiery furnace over and over again so that our impurities, which slowly rise to the surface, can be scraped away every time he pulls us back out.

At the present time, I’m not exactly sure what impurities God intends to remove through these confrontational trials. Maybe he’s intending to remove more of my pride. Maybe he’s intending to remove more of my reliance on the affirmation of others to define my value. Maybe he’s intending to deepen some of my relationships. I don’t know.

It can be extremely challenging to accept our trials (not that our rejection or acceptance is going to change God’s mind) when we don’t know God’s intentions through them. If we could see a few years, or even just a few months into the future so that we could see how our situations today will positively impact us in the future, it seems like that would at least make the trials a bit more bearable now. Sometimes God does give me a glimpse into why he’s doing what he’s doing. But right now, I can honestly say that I don’t know his intentions.

Nonetheless, I have no less faith in him and no more anxiety about the situation because of my lack of insider information. I’m 100 percent certain that God is fully in control and trust that his current testing, although painful and difficult to bear at times, is serving to bring glory to his name and transform me more into his image.

I’ll wrap up with a light story. I have to laugh sometimes at God’s incessant humor. Last week when our missional community was gathered together, we were discussing a few chapters from Ecclesiastes and the topic of fiery trials came up. After we all agreed that we’ve noticed God’s transformation the most during our fiery trials, I asked why we don’t ask God for more trials. Seriously, if facing more fiery trials is going to get us closer to reaching our goal of being transformed into his image, then why wouldn’t we want more of them? When I volunteered to close in prayer at the end of our time together, I prayed for God to give us more fiery trials. Look what happened…God answered my prayer! Haha.

Honestly, we shouldn’t be surprised when we’re faced with difficult situations that push us outside of our comfort zones. It’s written all over the Bible that this is going to happen.[1] How are we going to respond? Are we going to respond with conditional faith which needs to know exactly what’s going to happen and how it’s all going to work out before we submit to God’s plan? Or are we going to respond with unconditional faith which submits to God’s plan, even when it doesn’t make sense?

[1] A few examples are 1 Peter 4:12-13, James 1:2-4, Isaiah 48:9-11, Psalm 66:10-12, and Revelation 3:18.