Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Is it good to be tolerant?

Don Carson points out that the old understanding of tolerance was summed up by a sentiment attributed to Voltaire (although not actually said by him): 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.'  It is against this view of tolerance that I want to ask if Christianity is a tolerant religion.

Israel of the Old Testament was not particularly tolerant.  After the Hebrews left Egypt they became a nation.  The government of the nation might be described as a theocracy.  There was no separation between the religious and the secular life.  God's law was the nation's law.  If something was immoral then it was also illegal.  If you disobeyed God's law then you had to leave or were punished.

That been said, God reveals himself in the Old Testament to be something better than tolerant.  He is longsuffering.  He regularly forgives the evil of his people.  He persists with them even though they rebel against him.  He is always calling them back to himself.

Eventually, because of the repeated disobedience of the people, God allows them to be exiled from the land.  The prophet Jerimiah instructs them on how they should live as exiles.  They are to seek the good of the city in which they live (Jeremiah 29:7).  This is important for Christians to understand because we live as exiles in our lands (1 Peter 1:1), and so we are commanded to seek the good of the places where we are now resident.

In the New Testament Jesus is not always tolerant.  When it comes to those who claim to follow him, he does not allow for a diversity of morality and opinion.  Of course there will be room for Christians to disagree on certain secondary issues, but where the Bible is clear we are not given the liberty to disagree.  Jesus does not permit an a la carte attitude to his gospel.

In the book of Revelation the risen Jesus condemns the church for its tolerance.  He complains that the church at Ephesus is tolerating those who do evil (Revelation 2:2) and that the church at Thyatira is putting up with a prophetess referred to a Jezebel who is leading the people astray (Revelation 2:20).  However, again we see that God is longsuffering.  Jesus had given this woman called Jezebel plenty of time to repent (Revelation 2:20).

The apostle Paul shows a godly intolerance when he tells the church at Corinth not to associate with those who are claiming to follow Jesus but live lives of unrepentant greed, dishonesty or sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:11).  But it should be noted that if such a person repents they are to be welcomed back into the church (2 Corinthians 2:7).

So with regards to those who claim to follow Jesus the church is not to be tolerant, but it is to be longsuffering.

But what about the Christian church's attitude to those who live in our shared society but don't want to follow Jesus?  Here the church exercises a sort of tolerance that Voltaire might of approved of!

While the church is a new Israel it lives in the world as those in exile.  When Jesus was questioned about paying taxes to the emperor, he said to render onto Caesar what is Caesar's and render onto God what is God's (Mark 12:14-17).  While many people wanted Jesus to be a nationalist leader who would kick the Romans out of Palestine and restore a Jewish state, his kingdom was not of this world.  The apostle Paul is non-revolutionary when he tells the Christians in Rome that the governing authorities have been established by God and that we are to submit to them (Romans 13:1).  This was at a time when the vicious Nero was in power!  This is not to say that Christians are to be naïve about the fact that the state can also be a demonically inspired persecution power (Revelation 13).  The New Testament clearly anticipates the separation of church and state.

While the apostle Paul says that Christians should not tolerate unrepentant sin and false-teaching amongst those who claim to follow Christ, we cannot expect the world to obey Christ's standards for holy living (1 Corinthians 5:10).  This leaves us with an unanswerable question: 'what should be the relationship be between what is legal and what is moral?'  If a Christian politician is involved in legislation how far should they go in encouraging the state to punish those who do evil (Romans 13:4)?  For example, if adultery is an evil that wounds its victims, should adulterers be punished by the state?  

Sadly, the historical Christian church does not have a good record on issues of tolerance.  I use the term historical Christian church because sometimes it is hard to know when this institution was actually the body of Christ and when it was simply a power hungry and corrupt organisation run by people who had little true knowledge of God.

When the church was persecuted by the Roman state it saw the sense in pleading for religious tolerance.  For example, Tertullian wrote that 'it is a human law and a natural right that one should worship however he intends' and that 'it is no part of religion to coerce religious practice for it is by free choice and not coercion that we should be led to religion.'

After the Edict of Milan (A.D. 313), Christianity was tolerated in the Roman Empire, but by the eleventh-century 'Christian' Europe had become a persecuting society.  

Maybe the most famous example of 'Christian' persecution is the Spanish Inquisition.  During the later middle ages many papal inquisitions were set up in Europe.  In 1478 King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabelle I of Castile believed that the Papal Inquisition was too weak, and this led to them setting up the Spanish Inquisition.  This was designed to enforce Roman Catholic Orthodoxy, so Jews and Muslims did not come under its mandate.  This inquisition did not formally end until 1833!

It was not only the Roman Catholic Church that did not allow religious freedom.  The main reformers (including Luther, Calvin and Zwingli) are amongst those called 'magisterial reformers', which refers to the fact that they saw a close connection between the church and the local magistrates.  We can see that Calvin's Geneva and Zwingli's Zurich did not permit dissenting religious voices.

In Britain (and Ireland under its rule) there were some steps towards religious tolerance in the seventeenth-century.  For example, in England in 1689 there was the Act of Toleration.  This allowed non-conformists to worship, provided that they pledged allegiance to the crown and rejected transubstantiation (this act was not going to allow Catholics freedom of religion).  The movement for Catholic Emancipation in  eighteenth and nineteenth centuries involved reducing many of the restrictions against Roman Catholics.   

Is modern Ireland a tolerant society?

There are many examples of religious intolerance on both sides of the border in the twentieth century.  Mostly between Protestants and Catholics, although many of our new residents have experienced hateful attitudes and words.  But a new type of intolerance has emerged in our post-modern society.

At the beginning of this essay I mentioned that the old tolerance involved recognising the right for people to hold different views.  Of course there should be limits to this tolerance, for example, no society should tolerate Holocaust denial for it is so obvious false and dangerous.  Now tolerance is defined in terms of accepting a prescribed set of values.   There is no longer freedom to say 'I disagree with you, but respect you right to hold that opinion.'  If you say that you believe that marriage should be between one man and woman woman you are simply labelled 'homophobic'.  If you disagree with someone's lifestyle choice you are accused of not accepting them.  This acceptance is not shown towards those who do not agree with the majority opinion on issues such as sexuality.

Behind this new tolerance are a few assumptions.  It is assumed that those who claim to believe in absolute religious truths are dangerous, which leads to a patronising attitude towards those who take seriously any of the world's major religions (all of which make absolute truth claims).  It is believed that religion should be kept to the private sphere of life, which assumes that humankind can create it's own goodness without God (which most theists will disagree with).  In essence there is no religious tolerance for serious religion is not tolerated.

I want to finish with a few examples of the intolerance of western tolerance.   

In 2019, RTE's Primetime did a feature on transgenderism.  It was a fascinating feature because it actually raised some concerns about the issue of gender reorientation.  You would normally expect that RTE would be unquestioning of the sexual consensus.  However, this programme did highlight that our educational institutions in the west are beginning to censor anything that does not fit with the new tolerance.  A masters student, James Caspen, who happened to be involved in transgender advocacy wanted to write his thesis on gender reassignment regret.  His university in Bath told him that he could not for such research would lose funding if it was considered not to be fully supportive of all things transgender.  This attitude has also been seen in the 'cancel culture' whereby even feminists like Germaine Greer have been banned from speaking at university societies because they have expressed doubt about whether a sex change operation really makes a man and woman and visa versa.  

It should also be noted that such intolerance is often selective.  Across the United Kingdom there have been attempts to close Christian Unions in certain universities and colleges because they will not allow anyone who is in an unmarried sexual relationship serve on their committees and that they define marriage as been between one man and one woman.  However, it is hard to imagine that society would be happy if an Islamic society was shut down for the very same reasons.             




Monday, 15 February 2021

The radical reformation and the anabaptists

The term anabaptist literally means to rebaptise.  However, these groups would not have seen themselves as ‘re’ baptising as they would not have recognised a person’s baptism as an infant as being a valid baptism.  One of their core beliefs was that rather than baptise people when they are babies we should baptise people at an age when they can give their consent to what they promise at baptism.

It might be thought that today’s Baptist churches are an offspring of the anabaptist movement, but actually they have a different family root.  The decedents of the anabaptist movement on sixteenth-century Europe are groups such as the Amish, Hutterites and Mennonites.

The early anabaptists were harshly persecuted by both ‘magisterial Protestants’ (those who had a coalition with a governing power) and the Roman catholic church.

Although there were forerunners to these anabaptist groups they emerged most visibly in what was called the Radical Reformation.  The magisterial Protestants were ‘established churches’ and their clergy received their salary from the state.  Among the views held by those in the Radical Reformation was the complete separation of church and state.  Their opinions received condemnation from Luther.

Zwickau Prophets

On December 27th 1521 three ‘prophets’ appeared in Luther’s Wittenberg from Zwickau (also in Germany).  These three preached a radical alternative to Luther’s teaching based on their understanding of the end times.  These three prophets were not anabaptist (they did not believe in believers’ baptism).  However, they were an example of the form of radicalism that could arise out of reformation thinking.

These three prophets were influenced by, and were influences of, a man called Thomas Muntzer.  Their preaching contributed to the sentiments that erupted in the Peasants’ War of 1525.  Under the leadership of Muntzer the war was an attempt to create an idealised Christian commonwealth with complete equality among all citizens.      

Ulrich Zwingli

Zwingli was the leader of the reformation in Switzerland.  He became the people’s priest at the Great Minster Church in Zurich in 1519.  He influenced the thinking of the city through his biblical expositions.  One area where Zwingli disagreed with Luther was on his embrace of the regulative principle of worship.  The regulative principle of worship says that churches can only do what is commanded to do in Scripture.  The alternative to the regulative principle of worship is the normative principle of worship, which means that churches are free to worship in other ways, as long as they are not forbidden in scripture.  Zwingli’s views of worship meant that in Zurich churches tended to remove music and pictures.

Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz were two supporters of Zwingli.  But their study of the Bible led them to different conclusions than Zwingli regarding baptism and the relation of the church to the state.

Like the rest of Europe, in the city-state of Zurich infants were baptised and every baptised person was considered to be a member of the church.  However, Grebel and Manz wanted a church that only consisted of those who truly believed.  Zwingli opposed these new radicals.

Point of no return

In the autumn of 1524, Grebel’s wife had a son.  The city rules said that this child must be baptised, but the Grebel’s refused.  Other people began to follow their example and reuse to have their infants baptised too.

So, the city council organised a public debate.  Of course, the influential Zwingli and his supporters were declared the winners and the council warned the dissenters that if they did not have their babies baptised within a week they would be banished from the city. 

Rather than back down the anabaptists held their nerve.  On 21st January 1525 about a dozen men gathered in the home of Felix Manz.  Manz and Grebel had been ordered by the City Council to stop holding Bible studies.  Those gathered prayed.  Then one of the men, a former priest named George Blaurock asked Conrad Grebel to baptise him ‘in the apostolic fashion’.  A number of men were baptised that night.

The group soon moved to the nearby town of Zollikon and set up a ‘free church’ (a church free from ties to the state).


However, the authorities in Zurich had no intention of letting this group do its own thing.  They sent police to Zollikon to arrest the newly baptised men.  When these anabaptists were released they went to surrounding towns sharing their gospel.  On 7th March, 1526 the Zurich council declared that anyone found ‘re-baptising’ would be put to death by drowning.  On 5th January 1527, Felix Manz was drowned.  Blaurock was burned at the stake. During the years around the reformation anabaptists were put to death by burning, sword and, of course, drowning.

The Munster Rebellion

Anabaptist history has been stained by what is called the Munster rebellion.

Munster was a city near what is now the Netherlands.  A group migrated to the city who were ‘apostles’ of a man called Jan Matthijs.  Many of these people looked for the creation of the Lord’s ‘earthly kingdom’ in Munster.  Matthijs expelled the bishop, Franz von Waldeck.  So, the bishop of the region gathered the troops to besiege the city.  Normally, anabaptists opposed the use of arms, however on this occasion they resorted to violence.  The extremists gained control of the city Matthijs had prophesied that God’s judgement would come on the wicked and that he was a new Gideon.  He took just twelve followers and took on the opposition.  He was cut off from his band of soldiers, was killed, and his dead was placed on a pole for all the city to see (his genitals were nailed to the city gate).

A twenty-five-year-old former inn-keeper by the name of Jan von Leiden manged to seize power after Matthjs.  He ruled with absolutely authority, believed that he was receiving new revelations from heaven, reinstated the Old Testament of polygamy and eventually took the title ‘King David’.  He lived in luxury with his sixteen wives as the city starved.  When the city fell to the troops von Leiden and other leaders were imprisoned.  The most prominent of the leaders were tortured and executed in the marketplace of Munster.  Their bodies were exhibited in cages which hung from one of the city churches.

Smalley comments, that ‘for centuries thereafter Europeans upon hearing “anabaptist” thought of the Munster rebellion.  It stood for wide-eyed, religious fanaticism.’ 

Monday, 8 February 2021

John Calvin (1509-1564) – Zeal to Illustrate the Glory of God

So, my daughter, Anya, comes home from school and tells me that she learned about John Calvin in school.  I ask whether he was portrayed as a good guy or a bad guy.  Bad guy, she responds.  John Calvin is much misunderstood.  He certainly was not perfect, and he has a terrible blemish, but he is massively influential to evangelical thought.

 Early Life

John Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, in Noyon, France.  When he was fourteen his father sent him to study theology at the University of Paris.  But when his father fell out of favour with the church, he told John to study law.  John did this at Orleans and Bourges.  When Calvin’s father died, when John was twenty-one, he felt free to study classics.

We don’t know a lot about Calvin’s conversion to evangelical faith.  However, in 1533, his friend Nicholas Cop gave a speech as rector of the University of Paris that was considered to influenced by Lutheran ideas.  It is suspected that Calvin may have written this speech.  The speech threw the university into uproar, and Calvin was among those who had to flee the city as a result of the clampdown.

The young reformer found exile in the Swiss city Basel.  There he wrote the first edition of his masterpiece, ‘The Institutes of the Christian Religion.’  This was published in March 1536.  Calvin later said that what motivated him in his writing was the thought of people being burned alive for their faith back in France.  He wanted to vindicate the faith for which these people were being martyred for.


Calvin did not want to become a pastor, but rather to enjoy the ‘tranquillity of … of studies.’  However, events would lead him into the church.  In 1536 France gave a temporary amnesty to those who had fled.  Calvin returned to put things in order at home, then took his brother Antione and sister Marie with him to go to Strasburg.  However, the road to Strasburg was blocked by fighting between the French and Spanish armies.  So, Calvin had to take a detour to Geneva.  Calvin intended to spend only one night. 

Geneva was a town of around 10,000.  It had recently gone from being under the control of the Roman Catholic Church to that of the reformed faith.  However, this shift in allegiance was more to do with hostility to the bishop than any conviction of faith.  The fiery leader of the reformation in the city was a man called William Farel.  Farel knew that he needed someone to shape the city’s religious institutions.

When Farel heard that Calvin was in the city, he sought him out.  Farel encouraged Calvin to stay and help establish the work there.  Calvin protested, saying that he had special studies that he wanted to pursue.  So, Farel turned up the heat, claiming that Calvin was only following his own wishes and that the Lord would punish him if he did not give himself to his work in Geneva.

Calvin was terror stricken by Farel’s threats.  He was a bit antisocial and shy, and this was not the life he wanted.  But he felt he had no choice.  The city offered the role of Professor of Sacred Scriptures, but within four months he was made pastor of Saint Peter’s Church, one of the three parishes in the city.

Calvin began his time in Geneva by drawing up a confession of faith to be accepted by everyone who wished to be a citizen.  He planned an education system for all.  He insisted on excommunication, particularly exclusion from the Lord’s Supper, for anyone who was not serious about godliness.  Gambling, drunkenness, adultery and dancing were prohibited.  It was all a bit more than the city fathers had hoped for.  There was disquiet among many of the people.  There was tension between the church and the city magistrates over who had the power to excommunicate.  After less than two years, in April 1538, Calvin and Farel had to leave.   

Calvin went to Basel again, and thought again of having a peaceful life as a scholar.  However, when Martin Bucer found out he was there he urged Calvin to come to Strasburg.  Bucer used tactics of persuasion similar to Farel.  He suggested that it was God’s will for him to go to Strasburg and that he must not behave like Jonah, in running from this call.


Strasburg turned out to be the happiest years of Calvin’s life.  For about three years he served as pastor to about five hundred refugees in the French church of the city.

Calvin was now in his thirties and several people decided to try and find him a wife.  Numerous women had shown interest in him.  Calvin told his friend Farel, who was acting as a matchmaker, ‘the only beauty which allures me is this—that she be chaste, not too nice or fastidious, economical, patient, likely to take care of my health.’  He settled on a widow named Idelette Stordeur.  Idelette, her husband and children were members of the French church at Strasburg.  Her husband died of plague.  Calvin and Idelette were married a few months later.

Return to Geneva

Back in Geneva the city leaders had a change of mind about Calvin.  Calvin’s allies had gained power.  The city magistrates now considered him to be a great man of God.  The issued him with an invitation to return.  This left Calvin with an agonizing choice.  He knew that life in Geneva would be full of controversy and danger.  But on September 13, 1541, Calvin returned to Geneva for his second period on ministry.  It would not all be plain sailing.  He would face opposition, but he always had a strong support base in those who had fled France as religious exiles.  He would be there until his death in 1564.

Calvin and Idelette’s son was born premature and died he was two weeks old.  Further tragedy would follow.  Idelette’s health never fully recovered.    There may have been a few daughters all of whom died in infancy.  His Roman Catholic opponents took these deaths as being a sign of God’s judgement, but Calvin responded that he was content to have sons in the faith.  Idelette cared for Calvin during his many illnesses, faithfully visited the sick and afflicted, and made her home a refuge for those who fled to Geneva because of their faith.  Though she survived the plague when it ravaged Geneva, she died after a lengthy illness in 1549.  In case you get the impression that Calvin had no romantic feelings towards his wife, listen to what he wrote to a friend: ‘and truly, mine is no common source of grief.  I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, of one who, had it not been ordained, would have willingly shared not only my poverty but even my death.  During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry.  From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance.  She was never troublesome to me throughout the whole course of her illness …’ 

Calvin never married again.  It was probably just as well as he was consumed with his work.  He explained in a sermon that he did not marry in part ‘because I know my infirmity, that perhaps a woman might not be happy with me’.  It is not certain whether that infirmity is a reference to his frequent ill health or his irritability.  He abstained from marriage to give him more time to serve God, but he insisted that he did not believe such abstinence made him more virtuous than anyone else.

Calvin was an extremely hard worker and struggled with poor health.  His ministry was not easy.  He had treats made to his life, and he was not unfamiliar with mobs outside his house threatening to throw him into the river.  The threat of invasion from French troops loyal to the Roman Catholic Church was constantly in the background, and from time to time he would ponder the sorts of tortures he would have to endure if Geneva was overthrown.

One of the constant sources of trouble for Calvin was ensuring discipline around the serving of the Lord’s Supper.  The men of Geneva, like their counterparts around Europe, liked to have a mistress or two.  When Calvin started his ministry in Geneva there had been a law in that city that said that a man could keep only one mistress.  Despite Calvin’s efforts, sexual immorality remained a problem.  There were those who claimed that Christian freedom implied that they could do as they wished.  Things came to a head in 1553 when an influential man was forbidden the Lord’s Supper.  He made a claim to the council of the city, who overturned the decision of the church.  Calvin would have rather died than compromise the Lord’s Supper.  When the man came forward to be served communion, Calvin flung his arms around the sacramental vessels as if to protect them from sacrilege.  His voice ran through the building, ‘these hands you can crush, these arms you may lop off, my life you may take, my blood is yours—you may shed it, but you shall never force me to give these holy things to the profaned, and dishonour the table of my God.’  After that, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated with profound silence and awe.

The great blemish

There is one very dark blemish that is held against Calvin.  That is his role in the trial of Michael Servetus.  It would be wrong to try to defend his actions here.  Although some points can put them in context.

These very harsh times.  There was tough enforcement of law in Geneva.  For example, a conspiracy of men and women were discovered to be intentionally spreading the plague.  As a result, fifteen women were burned at the stake.  Some of the men were treated even more severely in prison.  Even when these conspirators were in prison, their co-conspirators smeared the door locks of people’s homes with their poisonous ointments.

In those days, ideas of the separation of church and state, and the issue of religious freedom were not seen the way they are today.  Calvin was working within a cultural framework that he had not set up.  Also, within that framework Calvin sought for a degree of mercy.

So, what happened?

Michael Servetus was a Spaniard medical doctor, lawyer and a theologian.  His doctrine of the Trinity was unorthodox.  In 1553, Servetus published his views and was arrested in France.  He managed to escape.  He arrived in Geneva.  However, he was tried in Geneva as a heretic.  Calvin served as chief prosecutor.  Servetus was sentenced to death.  He was burned at the stake.

Calvin had spent hours with Servetus during the trial, trying to persuade him to recant.  When the death sentence was passed, Calvin requested that Servetus be beheaded—in order that he would have to endure less suffering, but his request was denied. 

When Servetus had arrived, Calvin had been at a low ebb in his influence in the city and was facing major opposition.  However, two years later Calvin’s position was secure.  From that time until his death, he had no serious opposition.

Calvin considered Geneva to be a refuge for persecuted Protestants, an example of a discipled Christian community and a centre for ministerial training.  People from all over Europe visited to Geneva to learn about what had happened there and see how it might be put in place in other parts.  Geneva did have representative assemblies, and Calvin stressed their right to resist the tyranny of monarchs.  As such, Geneva played a role in the development of modern constitution governments. 

Why we need Calvin today

Calvin was motivated by a passion for God’s glory.  In a letter to an opponent, Calvin wrote, that he should set before men and women, ‘as this prime motive of [their] existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God’ (letter to Cardinal Sadolet).  Our goal as Christians, as we are open about our sin and so display his mercy, and seek to become like Jesus, and so display his transforming power, is to demonstrate God’s beauty to the world.  The reason why Calvin felt so strongly about the adoration of Mary was that it took away from the adoration of Jesus.  The reason why he opposed the Mass as a sacrifice was that it suggested that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was not sufficient.  The reason he hated the idea of calling of ‘saints’ to intercede for us before the Father is that it took away from the fact that Jesus is the only mediator that we need.  He was passionate about justification by faith because ‘whenever the knowledge of [justification be faith] is taken away, the glory of God is extinguished’ (Sadolet).

His passion for the glory of God led him to preach book by book through the Bible.  So, the Sunday after he returns to Geneva, having been exiled for three years, Calvin preaches the very next verse after that which he had been expounding on the Sunday before he was expelled from the city.  He said, ‘we owe to Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God, because it proceeded from Him alone, and has nothing of man mixed with it.’  Calvin was not denying that the Scriptures were given through human agency, but he is highlighting that there was nothing human in Scripture that would corrupt it.  He almost entirely ignored Christmas and Easter in his preaching plan, because he did not want to get in the way of systematically working through Bible books.  He spent four and a half years working through Acts.  He wrote commentaries of every New Testament book except for Revelation.  He believed that working our way verse by verse through Bible books was the best way to ensure that we teach what God wants to say rather than simply giving people what we want to tell them and choosing our own favourite topics. 

Monday, 1 February 2021

Martin Luther—the Wild Boar (1483-1546)

Becoming a monk

Luther was born in Mansfeld, Germany in 1483.  He was named after the saint of the day on the day of his baptism.

The Christianity of his day portrayed a harsh God and was mixed with folk superstition.  There was a belief in such things as elves, fairies, witches and mermaids.  There was a constant awareness and fear of death with repeated plagues and fears of dark powers.

Luther was a clever student and quickly attained a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree.  Luther’s father leased mines and wanted his son to become a lawyer.

One day, while he was walking towards the village of Stotterheim, he was caught in a thunderstorm.  A lightening bolt struck the ground near him, and like all people of his time, he assumed this was a sign of God’s anger.  He cried out, ‘Saint Anne, save me!  And I’ll become a monk.’  Saint Anne was believed to be the mother of Mary and she was the patron saint of miners.

Much to the annoyance of his father, Luther kept his vow to become a monk.  Two weeks later he entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt.

The young Luther was obsessed with sin and guilt.  Joining the monastery didn’t help this, but actually made these fears worse.  He later recalled, ‘I kept the rule so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by sheer monkery it was I.  If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading and other work.’

Luther was ordained in April 1507 and about a month later said his first mass.  This was a terrifying experience for Luther.  He thought to himself, ‘who am I that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty?  For I am dust and ashes and full of sin, and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God.’

No amount of confession and penance could easy Luther’s awareness that he was a miserable sinner standing before a holy God.  On one occasion his confessor encouraged him to love God.  Luther burst out, ‘I do not love God! I hate him!’

Theological breakthrough

That confessor was his superior, a man by the name of Staupitz.  Staupitz assigned Luther to the chair of biblical studies in the recently established university at Wittenberg.  While teaching there, he became fascinated with the words of Jesus from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?’  He felt that God=forsakenness.  But he knew that there was a difference between himself and Christ, for he was a sinner and Christ was pure.  He concluded that these words must be related to Christ’s identification with sinful humanity.     

Pondering the book of Romans led to his theological breakthrough.  He later explained:

‘I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression “the justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust.”  My situation was that, although am impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merits would assuage him.

Night and day, I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.”  Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith.  Therein I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.  The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.  This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven …

If you have a true faith that Christ is your Saviour, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love.’

Lighting the flame

The sale of indulgences had been introduced during the crusades.  They were still used by the Vatican to fund projects.  In Luther’s day they were used to raise money to construct Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome. 

In 1517 a Dominican by the name of John Tetzel was preaching throughout Germany raising money for this project.  He was selling an indulgence that would go past the grave and free people from purgatory.  He had a little jingle that went: ‘as soon as the coin in the coffer rings the soul from purgatory springs.’

Luther was incensed at this and on 31st October 1517 he posted a sheet of paper on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg listing 95 theses (propositions) for debate.

In these theses he asked why, if you bought an indulgence you could release someone from purgatory, then why doesn’t the pope use the treasure of merit to release everyone from purgatory?  Why use this power to raise money, rather than be motivated by love to show eternal mercy? 

He also addressed the issue of grace claiming that ‘the true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of glory and the grace of God.’

He also had a lot to say about the authority exercised by the church.

Within a short time, the German Dominicans were denouncing Luther, A Vatican theologian issues a series of counter theses claiming that anyone who criticised indulges was guilty of heresy. 

In 1519 Luther had an eighteen-day debate with theologian John Eck at Leipzig.  Luther pointed out that councils of the church and the popes can get things wrong, so Scripture must be our only and final infallible standard of truth.

On 20th June 1520 Pope Leo X issued a papal bull (names after the seal or bulla) condemning Luther.  Luther received his copy on 10th October 1520.  The bull began, ‘Arise O Lord, and judge Thy cause.  A wild boar has invaded Thy vineyard.’  The commanded Luther to retract what he was teaching in sixty days or face execution.  On 10th December Luther led a crowd to the city dump and cast the pope’s bull onto a bonfire.

Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise

The new elected Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, was in Germany to meet with the princes through whom he ruled the empire.  He summoned Luther to the imperial hall in Worms to explain his teaching.  He was promised safe passage and was greeted as a hero as he travelled across Germany.  He arrived on Tuesday April 16th 1521. 

Shortly after arriving, Luther was informed that he was to appear before the emperor at 4pm the next day.  At that time, he was escorted to the bishop’s court where he was required to wait two hours before he was summoned into the emperor’s presence.  Two questions were directed to him: ‘Do you acknowledge [having written] these books lying here?’ ‘Are you prepared to retract them as a whole or a part?’  Luther’s reply was barely audible: ‘The books are all mine and I have written more.’  He asked for time in order to consider if he would recant.  He was given a day.

That evening he remained in his quarters alone.  He was weighed down by anxiety and doubt.  He wrote, ‘So long as Christ is merciful, I will not recant a single jot or tittle.’ 

The next day Luther returned to the hall.  There was other business on the agenda and it was not until nightfall that he was summoned.  He was asked the same questions as the day before.  Luther’s response was clear and courageous.  He offered a lengthy speech separating his writings into different categories.  This frustrated his enquires who demanded a straight answer.  Then came his famous reply (in Latin): ‘Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reason (for I do not trust in either 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 will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.  [He is then said to have added in German] Here I stand.  I can do no other.  God help me!  Amen.’

Charles V was unimpressed with Luther and pronounced him an outlaw.

Sir George 

As he returned home with his two companions their wagon was ambushed.  They placed Luther upon a horse and led him for a whole day by a circuitous route through the woods until they arrived in the dark at Wartburg Castle.  This had actually been a secret plot concocted by Fredrick III, elector of Luther’s home, Saxony.  As a supporter of Luther, Fredrick decided to hide him away.  Luther entered the ancient fortress to find smiling faces and a warm welcome.

Luther had to be kept safe.  He lodged in a room with a retractable ladder.  He stayed out of sight until his hair and beard grew long enough to hide disguise his face.  He dressed up as a noble knight and was known around the town and in the castle as Sir George (Junker Jorg).  He remained hidden for ten months.

Before been snatched from his wagon, Luther managed to grab his Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament.  He translated the entire New Testament into German from the Greek text.

Across Germany revolt against the Vatican spread.  Priests and town councils removed statutes and abandoned the Mass.  Princes, dukes and electors voices their support of Luther.  Time came for Luther to return to Wittenberg.

Luther’s spare rib

In Wittenberg Luther got rid of the office of bishop for he saw no justification for it in scripture.  He encouraged priests and nuns to abandon celibacy.  In fact, he facilitated the escaping of nuns from their convents.

In 1525 he helped twelve nuns escape from a convent—in a barrel used for herring.  He then arranged marriages for them.  He had no husband for one of them, Kathrine von Bora so he married her himself.  By all accounts he had a very happy marriage.  ‘There is a lot to get used to in the first year of marriage,’ he later said, ‘one wakes up in the morning with and finds a pair of pigtails on the pillow which were not there before.’

The Luther’s were given ‘the black cloister’, which was a former monastery as a wedding present by the Elector John the Steadfast.  They had six children.  There home was open to young adults who would sit around the table and ask Luther for his wisdom (these are published under the title of Table-talks).

Luther’s clay feet

Luther had many health problems and his poor health could make him short tempered.  He had hopes to see a turning of Jews to Jesus and when this did not happen he frustrations were vented in some terrible anti-Semitic writings that were later quoted by the Nazis.  He also wrote harshly about reformers called the anabaptists and about the peasants.

The peasants had been encouraged by Luther’s writings on the freedom of the Christian.  They took this concept from the religious sphere to the economic sphere and began to rise up against their overlords.  They demanded the end of serfdom, unless it could be justified by Scripture.  At first Luther recognised the justice of their arguments.  But when the peasants turned to violence he was quick to condemn them.  However, his condemnation of their violence became vicious.  He wrote a pamphlet entitled, ‘Against the Thievish and Murderous Hordes of Peasants,’ encouraging the princes to ‘knock down, strangle and stab … and think nothing so venomous, pernicious or Satanic as an insurgent’. 

Philip Melanchthon

By 1530, a conference of reformation leaders was called in Augsburg.  Luther was still considered an outlaw and so could not attend.  The task of presenting the Lutheran view was given to Luther’s younger colleague and friend Philip Melanchthon.  Melanchthon drafted what is called the Augsburg Confession.  This was signed by theologians and princes who were in support of Luther’s theology.

Declining years

Luther’s final years continued to show his feet of clay.  He endorsed the bigamous marriage of his supporter, Prince Philip of Hesse.  He denounced reformers more radical than he was.  One biographer says that by the time of his death in 1546, he was ‘an irascible old man, petulant, peevish, unrestrained and at times positively coarse’ (Bainton).

Changing Europe

Despite his flaws, Luther left a lasting legacy.  In 1530 Charles V had intended to crush his heresy.  However, Lutheran princes banded together in 1531.  Between 1546 and 1555 there was a sporadic civil war.  This resulted in The Peace of Augsburg in 1555.  The allowed each prince to decide the religion of his subjects.  However, it did forbid sects other than Lutheranism.  It did order catholic bishops to hand over their property if they turned to Lutheranism.

Luther’s last journey

Luther died on February 18th, 1546 in the town of his birth, Eisleben.  He had been called there two weeks earlier to mediate in a dispute between two brothers who were counts of Mansfeld.  The pastor of Halle, Justus Jonas, to whom Luther confessed his sins and affirmed his faith in Christ, along with all his teachings. 

Friday, 23 October 2020

Miracle week: Day 5


George Mueller cared for orphans, in Bristol, in the 1800s.  His life was marked by amazing answers to prayer.  As can be seen in the following story.

One morning, all the plates and cups and bowls on the table were empty. There was no food in the larder and no money to buy food. The children were standing, waiting for their morning meal, when Müller said, “Children, you know we must be in time for school.” Then lifting up his hands he prayed, “Dear Father, we thank Thee for what Thou art going to give us to eat.”

There was a knock at the door. The baker stood there, and said, “Mr. Müller, I couldn’t sleep last night. Somehow, I felt you didn’t have bread for breakfast, and the Lord wanted me to send you some. So, I got up at 2 a.m. and baked some fresh bread and have brought it.”

Mr. Müller thanked the baker, and no sooner had he left, when there was a second knock at the door. It was the milkman. He announced that his milk cart had broken down right in front of the orphanage, and he would like to give the children his cans of fresh milk so he could empty his wagon and repair it. 

One night, in central Africa, Doctor Helen Roseveare worked hard helping a mother who was giving birth. Despite all her efforts the woman died leaving a tiny pre-mature baby and a two-year old daughter.

The staff had no incubator and so had difficulty keeping the new-born alive. So, one of the student midwives went for the box they had for such babies and the cotton wool the child would be wrapped in. Another went to stoke up the fire and fill a hot water-bottle. This young woman came back in distress to report that the hot water bottle had burst. It was the last hot-water bottle. All they could do was put the baby as near the fire as they safely could.

The following day Doctor Roseveare went for prayers at the adjoining orphanage. She told the children about the baby. She mentioned that this tiny child could die if it caught a chill. She also told them about the baby’s two-year-old sister.

During the prayer time at that orphanage one of the children, a ten-year old called Ruth, prayed a blunt prayer. ‘Please God send us a hot-water bottle. It’ll be no good tomorrow, God, the baby will be dead, so please send it this afternoon, and while you are about it, would you please send a dolly for the little girl so she know that you really love her?’

Helen Roseveare had to say amen but doubted anything would happen. She had been in Africa for four years and no one had yet sent a parcel from home. If someone did send a parcel why would they think of sending a hot-water bottle to the equator? 

Anyway, half-way through the afternoon a message came to Helen that there was a car at her front door of her house. By the time she got there she could see that a large parcel had arrived. She taught that she could not open the parcel alone and sent for the orphanage children. Excitement grew as the removed the string and paper. Helen lifted out coloured jumpers which she gave to the children. Then there were knitted bandages and raisins and sultanas. She cried as she pulled out a brand-new rubber hot water bottle. Ruth was sitting at the front of the children and exclaimed that ‘if God has sent the bottle, he must have sent the dolly too!’ Rummaging down to the bottom of the box she pulled out a small beautifully dressed doll. That parcel had been on its way for five whole months, packed by Roseveare’s former Sunday school class whose teacher had heard and obeyed God’s prompting to send a hot water bottle, even to the equator.


Thursday, 22 October 2020

Miracle week: Day 4

Miracles and the gospel

Be careful that in your desire to see God do miracles you do not take your eyes off the gospel. 

Remember the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).  A heartless rich man ignores the righteous beggar at his gate, and he ends up in hell.  From hell he asks Abraham to send the beggar, called Lazarus, from heaven to his brothers to warn them, so that they will not also end up in hell.  Abraham tells the rich man that, ‘if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, then will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead’ (31).  Moses and the Prophets was a reference to the Bible as it was at that time.  Abraham is saying that if you reject the word of God, you will not be brought to faith through a miracle.

Sometimes God uses sign and wonders to point people to the gospel.  However, often the gospel is shared without signs and wonders and that is sufficient to bring people to faith.  Signs and wonders can be a supplement with the gospel but never a replacement for the gospel.  If someone is resistant to the gospel, like the rich man’s brothers, then a sign or wonder will not wake them up.  We see this with another Lazarus, in John 11.  Jesus raised this Lazarus from the dead.  But that did not cause all those who witnessed this miracle to put their trust in Jesus.  Some believed, but others went away to plot about how they might kill Jesus (John 11:15-16).  People’s rejection of Jesus is less about a lack of evidence than a hardness of heart.   

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Miracle week: Day 3

Should we expect miracles today?

In the fourth century the great church leader, Augustine, disparaged the idea of God healing in his day.  However, he came to change his mind, and he wrote, ‘it is only two years since we began keeping records here in Hippo and already, at the time of writing, we have seen over seventy attested miracles’  (in ‘The City of God’).

In the 1500s the greater reformer, Martin Luther, had not believed that miracles were for his day.  Then his friend, Philip Melanchthon, became seriously ill.  As Luther visited Melanchthon, he was prompted to write on his friend’s wall the words of Psalm 118:17: ‘I shall not die but shall live and tell the deeds of the Lord.’ Immediately Melanchthon began to show visible signs of recovery, and Luther believed this was a miracle.

In the book of Acts, we see miracles, but is our experience to be like that of Acts? 

There is a sense in which the book of Acts is unique.  We might read Acts and think that miracles always happen.  But in Acts we are focused in on the ministry of the apostles, and in Acts we have events which took place over thirty years condensed down to twenty-eight chapters. 

There was a special relationship between miracles and the apostles (Acts 2:43).  Signs, wonders and miracles were among the marks of an apostle (2 Corinthians 12:12).  In Acts 9, the people of Joppa could not raise Tabitha from the dead, but they sent for the apostle Peter who was in nearby Lydda, who came and raised her (Acts 9:32-43).  Acts is not necessarily describing the everyday experience of everyday Christians.     

Even in New Testament times miracles did not always happen.  It was an unhealed illness that led Paul to go to the uplands of Galatia (4:13).  Paul tells Timothy to take some wine for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23).   Paul leaves his companion Trophimus behind in Miletus because Trophimus was ill (2 Timothy 4:20). 

However, writing to ordinary church members at Corinth, Paul talks of people being given the gifts of healing (1 Corinthians 12:9) and of an ability to perform miraculous powers (1 Corinthians 12:10).  James tells the church that if someone is sick, they should call the elders of the church to come and pray with them with the expectation that they will be healed (James 5:14).  It is not only apostles that perform miracles.  Indeed, Paul seems to see the miraculous as being a part of the church to the end of the age (1 Corinthians 13:10).  

How often should we expect the miraculous to occur?  Well, some of that will be related to our faith and expectation that God can and does do miracles today.  However, if a miracle we are praying for does not happen, that does not necessarily imply that we lacked faith.  In fact, miracles do not necessary mean that a person or church is spiritual.  Don’t assume that a church or a person experiencing miracles is more spiritual than any other church or person.  There will be those who say to Jesus, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name and in your name drive out demons, and in your name preform many miracles?’  Yet Jesus will say, ‘I never knew you’ (Matthew 7:22-23).  We should give God the freedom to acts as he chooses.  We should delight in his ordinary and his spectacular blessings.  We should be open to miracles, but not demand them (Matthew 16:4).

It is worth noting that when the church is moving into a new area, miracles seem to occur with greater frequency.  John Stott wrote, ‘especially on the frontier of missions when a power encounter may need to be necessary to demonstrate the lordship of Christ miracles have been and are been reported.’  Could it be that as the church in the west continues to be surrounded by a hostile secularism that God will seek to halt this rot by demonstrating his miraculous power?