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Archive for the ‘Relating with God’ Category

On October 31, many celebrate Halloween by dressing up in the dark as undead, but did you know a less well-known holiday occurs on the same day which celebrates light? In five German states and in other countries in Europe, they celebrate Reformation Day as a national holiday. What is Reformation Day? It is a holiday to celebrate a historical event that does not find its origin in bloody revolution but in peaceful protest of religious corruption. Isn’t it just different sects arguing about an insignificant matter? If that were the case, it should seem strange that even the side effects of the Reformation could bring as much positive social reform as it did, not just in Europe but worldwide. Even countries as far away as Korea have benefited from the “Protestant work ethic,” the explosion of public education and literacy rates, the separation of church and government (see “How the Reformation Changed Everything,” podcast with Dr. John Warwick Montgomery), and the freedom to make Bible translations into local languages without being threatened with a public execution. Even today, the vast number of Korean churches are Protestant (Mostly Presbyterian, then Methodist or Baptist) and hold to Sola Scriptura.

All of this was sparked 500 years ago on Oct. 31, 1517 because of one issue: the issue of how souls are made right before God. A German Augustinian monk named Martin Luther protested church-approved marketing phrases (Theses numbers 27 and 28) used by donation collectors like Johann Tetzel who said, “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs.” This soul-purchasing money built St. Peter’s Basilica and funded the beautification of Rome by famous artists like Michael Angelo (“What is Reformation Day?” Stephen J. Nichols). Actually, many had called for reform before Luther, because the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church was obvious. There had even been forty years (1378-1417) when the church had three popes! According to church historian W. Robert Godfrey, this degree of corruption had caused an ongoing debate on whether councils or popes held the most authority in the church. So when Martin Luther received his chance to debate lead theologians like Johann Eck, he shouldn’t have been surprised that they refused to reason from Scripture but rather proved that Luther, in fact, disagreed with popes and councils. Whether those popes and councils had erred according to God’s Word was conveniently ignored.

Why is Reformation Day important? With our human propensity to corruption and error, the constant reminder for Reformation to fundamentals in a variety of subjects could not be more relevant today. But the crucial matter discussed by Luther and the Reformers was and is the question, “What must I do to have eternal life?” Are we right before God by submitting to church authorities or is it rather faith in God’s good-news promises of Amazing Grace? Is Jesus a sufficient savior for the sinful wretch, or does God only help those who help themselves? The differences couldn’t be more pronounced and these differences remain protested today.

Summarizing five major points made by the Reformers are slogans called Solas, which means “alone” in latin.

Sola Scriptura – The ultimate authority for all to know God’s mind is through God’s Word alone. By Scripture we test all ideas and urges which we might wish that God had given us (1 Cor 4:6).
Sola Fide – We are saved by “Faith alone” (Gal 2:16). It is a faith in Jesus and his work that saves, but it is not a faith that is alone, for works bloom from faith.
Sola Gratia – Our salvation is a work of grace as a gift from God, so it is “grace alone” that initiates salvation, not our own will, so that none may boast (Eph 2:8-9).
Solus Christus – Salvation is through “Jesus Christ alone” and that by faith in him. (Acts 4:2)
Soli Deo Gloria – “Glory to God alone” (Isa 48:11). Jesus’ death on the cross is meaningless if all we needed were better guidelines for niceness (Gal 2:21), but a hero who does it all ought to get all the credit (Rev 7:10).

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[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
(Luke 18:9-14 ESV)

In this story, Jesus is not just criticizing someone on the religious right. He is criticizing anyone who is arrogant enough to forget or whitewash the sin they have done and focus on all their perceived great accomplishments. That seems to hit both sides of the political spectrum. There are many “Pharisees” who pretend to be religious and pure (sinner is always a word for others and not themselves) and there are many who are liberally approving of all kinds of actions and omissions so that they won’t be able to consider themselves sinners either. Both are trusting in themselves that they are righteous (aka self-righteous), and both demonize and hate others who don’t fit their personal standards. The humble person who takes up God’s standards, sees his evil and due to acknowledging pride expects more evils that he can’t see, that person will be forgiven and justified as righteous before God for his faith in God’s Word. So says Jesus (see also Rom 3-4).

The Tax collector’s prayer was heard and his faith rewarded because it was not a blind faith in his own ability to clean up by his own standards. It was not even a faith in his ability to meet God’s standards. Rather it was a faith in God’s guarantees that He forgives truly repentant sinners, cleans them up, and considers them righteous until such time as they really are made righteous (i.e. sinless by God’s standards). Until then, our faith in God and his Word about Jesus is counted as righteousness. I pray you are enjoying that very gift with me.

“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
(Romans 3:20-25)

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Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:1-6 ESV)

Are all religions essentially the same? Aren’t they just superficially different? As the Beatles have said in song, “Love is all you need.” Yet love seems to be in short supply! It is not as easy as they make it seem, because Love for God is the only command God has given us and yet how many of us have loved God with all our heart a single day of our lives? Jesus taught that the love of many will grow cold and people will be judged for their evil thoughts and activities unless they believe Jesus was the real deal. And our text today shows that the original preachers did not consider their message of “first importance” to be “love is all you need.” Rather they preached that Jesus physically resurrected and that his innocent death on the cross paid for the problem many refuse to admit, that we love ourselves more than God.

At least love seems to matter to us, but does the truth about reality matter to us? Should we not love truth as well? Everyone seems to have an opinion, but does our Great Designer have His say in the matter? Christianity is essentially based on what Jesus said and did. And He didn’t come preaching about kindness and love. He came preaching forgiveness from a Holy God who has promised wrath and judgement for the loveless sins you and I have committed. He came offering himself as a substitute “ransom” to pay for the sins of many who will trust and believe him. Sin is a debt. Sin is misplaced love. Sin is an evil crime. Sin is setting our own purposes for our life above and against God’s purposes for us. In short, sin is a refusal to love the truth.

What is God’s purpose for us? We exist to worship him and to enjoy him forever. How do we accomplish that? It can only start by trusting that Jesus told the truth that he came from God to fix us and that all others who claimed the same were “thieves and robbers.” All religious founders cannot all be correct about God and eternal life because all religions fundamentally contradict each other. How does one begin to sort through all that confusion? Ideas and theories are abstract and hard to test. But the story of Christianity has, from the beginning, been a story that tangibly enters into human history for us to test.

God offers us Jesus as a test for truth. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father but by me.” How do we know that Jesus was telling the truth? The whole religion stands or falls, according to Paul if we continue reading this chapter, on whether Jesus really did rise from the dead or not. If so, then God has given us proof about who he is and how to relate to him and proof that Jesus’ warning of hell is not just some fear tactic to gain converts. If not, then the search goes on into ever foggier territory, but I have found that Jesus’ claims and the original Christians’ claims about Jesus are all true. Whether we know it or want to admit it or not, all the historical evidence points to the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead, and in this hope, we are saved from our pride, from the devil, from death itself, and from God’s eternal punishment for our otherwise unquenchably rebellious spirit. Would you begin to consider Jesus and his resurrection? And consider the Word of God. These have been given as accessible proof, not only of our desperate condition and the frightful punishment for evil, but also for the good news about Jesus and his cross and resurrection which saves us from it.

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The Good News about Jesus is a lot like a Presidential pardon from a prison sentence of treason. It proclaims that because we sin continually against our holy and good Creator Sovereign that we can only expect a verdict of eternal guilt for our on-going “cosmic treason.” It proclaims that the means by which we may be forgiven this guilt and debt to God was accomplished by the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, almost 2,000 years ago on a Roman cross, that though he was innocent of our treason and sin, he took the penalty for many, that whosoever believes in him and calls on his name will have their eternal guilt taken away (John 3:16; Rom 10:13). Instead of appearing before the judge with our own record of crimes, as if dressed in filthy clothes before a King, we who believe are given a clean record just as if given a set of new clothes that had belonged to the prince, Jesus. The Good News does not stop there and, in fact, it gets even better, but at this point it seems to some so foolish and far-fetched that they will not even look into whether it is true or not. They will just deny it outright, yet at the same time these same people will declare the Bible to be “unfair” because it requires belief in this Good News to be thus saved.

Now this accusation of “unfairness” is just what I would like to put to the test now. I have just reviewed what the Good News is, that of factually received news about who Jesus is and what Jesus has done on the behalf of those who believe. I have pointed out in previous posts (here and here) that our belief acts as a rudder, steering our lives, and thus, logically, matters a great deal to the outcome of our lives. But is God unfair to offer a pardon that only some believe and receive? We can ask that question another way. Is God fair to refuse a pardon to those whom deny it has ever been offered?

Do you see how this disbelief is actually a denial, not only of the work that Jesus has, in fact, done, but also a denial of any substitution granted on our behalf? It is as if one has said, “No one has paid for my sins, so I will take the responsibility to pay for them myself.” This self-righteous denial leads to a full conviction without pardon, since it was not only rejected but denied as if the pardon had never been offered. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way.’”

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How is it that the Bible’s view of God is that He requires faith in or belief in Him in order for Him to save us? Why does it matter what one thinks about God so long as we treat others as we would like to be treated? It matters a great deal, because what we think often extends into what we do and thus how we treat others. God is the ultimate standard for Good, which makes our beliefs about Him and about what goodness is, logically prior to our actions. Not only this, but beliefs in the wrong direction from God lead us into trouble. If we reject God, the only true hope for Life, by putting our trust in a false hope, then we are heading to a destination other than Life. This is demonstrably true in everyday examples: Superstition keeps polio victims in Pakistan from receiving the vaccine that would save them. And over-confidence has no doubt been the final attitude of many a drunk driver who would save himself. Wrong beliefs can lead to death. How much more when the stakes are eternal?

Most importantly, it matters a great deal to God, and He’s the real factor worth considering in this. If God desires to save only those who have faith in Him, then that is completely His business. There is a wisdom in it that goes well beyond a parental “because He said so,” but that He has said so (John 3:16) is no small thing in itself. Our ideas about God are false hopes unless they are grounded in what God is actually like, and the most reliable material revealing God is still God’s own Word, the Bible.

Many have the idea which describes God as “the God of second chances.” But “second chances” would just mean we’d have a chance to try harder this time to follow the moral law (the law to love God and people). Inevitably, we’d fail again and discover that law is not an instrument that is meant to save but to condemn (Rom 3:20; Gal 2:21; 3:21-22). How, then, could belief that it could save ever actually save? Rather, God is the God of Life who creates new hearts from these dead ones, so that even our desires begin to change. Salvation is the adoptive rescue from the system of second chances and merit (Gal 3:26; 5:1). Only when we receive new hearts will we be enabled to obey that law. One day, when we receive new bodies as well (Acts 24:15), we will be as sinless as our heavenly Father (Matt 5:48).

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Luther door
Oct 31, 1517 Reformation Day
The Protest for Reformation in the church in the early 1500s may have been triggered by the question of how money for indulgences was garnered and spent, but the root issues on both sides of the Roman Catholic and Protestant divide delve deep to the heart of the Christian faith, that of the authority of Scripture, getting it into the hands of the people in their own languages, and clarifying the Good News of the Gospels (i.e. what one puts their faith in and how one attained salvation of their souls). Thus the Reformers discussed “the Solas” (or “the alones”) which ought to characterize Christian faith.

Sola Scriptura – The ultimate authority for Man to know God’s mind is through God’s Word alone. By Scripture we test all other ideas and urges which we might wish that God had given us (1 Cor 4:6).
Sola Fide – We are saved by “Faith alone” (Gal 2:16) and not by trying harder to do good things while we continue to have a past (or even present) full of guilt. It is a faith in Jesus and his work that saves, but it is not a faith that is alone, for works bloom from faith.
Sola Gratia – Our salvation is a work of grace as a gift from God, so it is “grace alone” that initiates salvation, not our own will, so that none may boast (Eph 2:8).
Solus Christus – Salvation is through Jesus Christ alone and that by faith in him. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” -Peter (Acts 4:2)
Soli Deo Gloria – Glory to God alone (Isa 48:11).

These were ideas from Scripture and had been noticed throughout church history, and here’s just one example a couple decades before it was declared by the Reformers.

When I confine myself to explaining holy Scripture my hearers receive much more light, and my preaching bore much more fruit in the conversion of men to Christ. For the holy Scripture contains that marvelous doctrine which more surely than a two-edged sword pierces men’s hearts with love which has adorned the world with virtue and has overthrown idolatry, superstition, and numberless errors.”
—Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola,
The Triumph of the Cross, Florence, Italy, A.D. 1498

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People often wonder at Christianity for the claim that Jesus is the only way. However, this is the claim Jesus and his disciples made themselves. “Why should we believe that other religions don’t help us be good enough to get to heaven,” some ask. Because the God revealed in the Bible, the one whom Jesus claimed to be, says he is the only God who really exists (Isaiah 45:21-22). All other gods or views of God are false ones by process of elimination. Following God then would be to discover Jesus, and following Jesus would be to obey his command to reject all that was contrary to him (Matt 10:38). The exclusivity is merely to that of what is true, rather than one of favoritism.

Now, hypothetically, one may have partial knowledge of the real God and call on him for salvation, but Jesus states that the condition of our souls is far more grave than we would like to imagine. Jesus said that if one truly loved God then they would also love him (John 8:42). He taught that unless one believes that he is who he claimed to be, that we would all die in our sins, that is, unsaved (John 8:24). These sins lead us away from God and cause us to prefer our own ways or our own safer versions of God over the real God (2 Tim 4:3-5). Knowing God exists and trying to be a good person does not solve the problem because past guilt is never erased by unrelated future actions. Humanity, led by its sin, will inevitably find false gods of greed or sex, worship Creation in place of Creator, or find another way to replace God, even if it means deciding that the individual determines destiny as if a god unto themselves (Rom 1:18-23).

Jesus was not making arrogant, baseless claims about being the hinge on whom all people’s eternity hung. He was revealing the way of salvation to those who would hear him. And if, as his resurrection strongly suggests, he is the Son of God, the only God, then turning to him is to turn away from all other god-substitutes. If the solution is trusting in him and hearing about what Jesus has done to do away with the guilt of sin, then shouldn’t we? As evangelist Ravi Zacharias has said, “If God had given us 1,000 ways to get to heaven, we would have wanted 1,001.” Should we complain that the good news is the only news?

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