I invited my good friend Dr Mike Reeves, president of Union School of Theology, to speak in the Bible Teachers Network at the European Leadership Forum back in May. Here are some nuggets on preaching and the Reformation for us.
So for the past couple of weeks I have been blogging through Luther’s lesser known 97 Theses. Let’s finish them up and wrap up the series.
(93)-94. This holds true also of the saying that the love of God may continue alongside an intense love of the creature.
Luther refers to “a kind of subtle evil” in arguments that try to balance what he sees as mutually exclusive. In this case, he wants to push away from some kind of balancing of love for God and love for non-God.
95. To love God is at the same time to hate oneself and to know nothing but God.
Loving God is seen as the opposite of sin, which is self-love and hatred of God. When we reduce sin to misdemeanors and “sins” then we can easily lose sight of this. At the heart of the human problem is the human heart and the problem is profound! A lot of Christian preaching leaves listeners very content with their elevated view of themselves, and the teaching easily turns into top tips to be a better you. We must not let humans be the residual focus of our preaching.
(96-97). Luther ends with two theses that urge the reader to conform their desires, using the language of will, in every respect, to God. It is clear for him that Christianity cannot be about dutiful obedience running parallel to rebellious heart inclinations. If we are His, then our will really should desire what God does.
I hope these posts have been helpful. At the very least, may this nudge us to take a look at Luther’s 97 Theses and wrestle with what he was proposing for debate. Perhaps his poking at foundational questions will make a difference to us in our understanding of Christianity, of humanity and of ministry.
It isn’t enough to educate and encourage conformity of external behavior. That option may be tempting, but it isn’t what the Gospel is all about. Too much of Christianity is shaped as much by unquestioned assumptions as it is by Scripture itself. The devil would love to keep us thinking highly of ourselves and little of God. Sadly, as preachers we can so easily fall into serving that hellish agenda.
May our hearts be drawn to Christ, and may our preaching offer the radical balm of the gospel to a profoundly sinful humanity. People desperately need what they will never find in themselves or their own behavioural resolutions, but only in Christ himself.
It seems fashionable to offer a list of the best books of the year during these days. I can only offer some of the highlights in terms of what I’ve read. Consequently, not all these books were published in 2012, but they were read by me in 2012! I won’t include any of the books I am currently reading, even though there are some real gems, with bookmarks in them, next to my reading chair.
To be effective preachers we need to be readers. Readers for the sake of our preaching, our biblical studies, our theology, our cultural awareness, our personal spirituality and our growth in all aspects of ministry. So here are some books I’d encourage you to get hold of if they weren’t in your stocking yesterday or on your shelf already:
Best Theological and Spiritually Stimulating Read of 2012: The Good God, by Michael Reeves. This book is appearing on lists far more comprehensive and purposeful than mine. Hopefully people will get the point – this delightful book is well worth reading! It is rich yet accessible, theological yet heart-stirring, historically alert yet relevant and enjoyable. (It was released in the UK in March 2012 by Paternoster, and in the US in the fall by IVP under the title, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith. Click here to buy the book in the UK.)
Other Theologically Stimulating Reads in 2012. These are not new, but worth grabbing if you get the chance. Holmes Rolston’s John Calvin Versus the Westminster Confession is very thought provoking. Janice Knight’s insightful analysis of the Antinomian Controversy in New England in the 1630’s is a golden piece of work (at a golden price, it must be said). The contrast between a God obsessed with His own power and a God who gives of Himself in love is as fresh a discussion as any from all those centuries ago. Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism – buy or borrow if you can. (To buy in the UK, click here.)
Best Freely Accessible Historical Document of 2012: I have thoroughly enjoyed time with both Luther and Edwards this year. Edwards is not always the most accessible, and Luther is not always the most consistent, but both are worth some reading time! For starters, why not try The Freedom of a Christian, by Luther (aka Concerning Christian Liberty – easy to find online, but why not get The Three Treatises on your shelf – to buy in the UK, click here.)
Biblical Studies Book of 2012: Jesus on Trial: A Study in the Fourth Gospel, by A.E.Harvey. This is an older book, published in the 70’s, but worth its weight in gold. This book helps make sense of the continual legal tension between Jesus and his accusers. I will long remember reading this by flashlight in the sleepless nights after our youngest was born – she was worth being awake for, but this book only made it even better!
Not Overtly Christian But Well Worth Reading Book: C.S.Lewis’ Experiment in Criticism is a delightful read on literature and how it engages people. Instead of evaluating readers by what they read, what if we evaluate literature on how it is read? This is well worth pondering on a spiritual, as well as on a literary level. (To buy the book in the UK, click here.)
Insight Into Human Psyche Book of the Year: A New Name, by Emma Scrivener. – This was published this year. It will make a mark on you if you read it. Autobiographical, profoundly vulnerable and deeply gospel-centred. This journey through the agony of anorexia gives insight into a world many of us know practically nothing about (but many in our congregation do). (To buy in the UK, click here.)
Erasmus was only ever able – and only ever wanted – to sponge down the system he was in. He could take pot-shots at bad popes and wish people were more devoted, but because he was unwilling to engage with deeper, doctrinal issues, he could never bring about more than cosmetic changes. He was doomed ever to remain a prisoner of where the church was at. And so it must be in a world conquered by him. For as long as doctrine is ignored, we must remain captives of the ruling system or the spirit of the age, whatever that may be.
Yet is all this fair to Erasmus? Was he not the one who made the Greek New Testament available, so providing the coals for the Reformation? Certainly he did, and yet his possession of the Scriptures (and his deep study of them) changed little for the man himself because of how he treated them. Burying them under convenient assertions of their vagueness, he accorded the Scriptures little practical, let alone governing, authority. The result was that, for Erasmus, the Bible was just one voice among many, and so its message could be tailored, squeezed and adjusted to fit his own vision of what Christianity was.
To break out of that suffocating scheme and achieve any substantial reformation, it took Luther’s attitude, that Scripture is the only sure foundation for belief (sola scriptura). The Bible had to be acknowledged as the supreme authority and allowed to contradict and overrule all other claims, or else it would itself be overruled and its message hijacked. In other words, a simple reverence for the Bible and acknowledgment that it has some authority would never have been enough to bring about the Reformation. Sola Scriptura was the indispensable key for change.
However, it was not just a question of the authority of the Bible; the reason Luther started the Reformation, and Erasmus did not, was the difference in what they saw as the content of the Bible. For Erasmus, the Bible was little more than a collection of moral exhortations, urging believers to be more like Christ, their example. For Luther, this was to turn the gospel on its head: its optimism displayed its utter ignorance of the seriousness of sin. As he saw it, what sinners need, first and foremost, is a saviour; and in the Bible is, first and foremost, a message of salvation. As Richard Sibbes lamented, a century after Luther, it was all to easy to lose that controlling focus on Christ and his gift of righteousness, and yet that was the very heart of true reform. For all that theBible was opened, without the message of Christ’s free gift of righteousness, there could be no Reformation.
I’m scanning through John Piper’s Brothers We Are Not Professionals. I resonate deeply with some of what he writes, then disagree with other elements – I suppose that makes for an engaging read. Anyway, here’s an “I resonate” for us all to ponder in relation to preaching ministry:
“Prayer is the translation into a thousand different words of a single sentence: “Apart from me [Christ] you can do nothing” (John 15:5)
Oh, how we need to wake up to how much “nothing” we spend our time doing. Apart from prayer, all our scurrying about, all our talking, all our study amounts to “nothing.” For most of us the voice of self-reliance is ten times louder than the bell that tolls for the hours of prayer. The voice cries out: “You must open the mail, you must make that call, you must write this sermon, you must prepare for the board meeting, you must go to the hospital.” But the bell tolls softly: “Without Me you can do nothing.”
Both our flesh and our culture scream against spending an hour on our knees beside a desk piled with papers.” – Page 55
I don’t think I need to add much to this. Amen, perhaps? It is easy to respond to the conviction felt within by agreeing that we need to pray more. It is easy to look ahead and imagine a change of circumstance in which we would pray more. It is easy to spot a time later in the week when prayer may fit more easily than the current pressing situation. Why not stop everything now and pray for an hour or two? What’s more important? What would the negative consequences be, really? Ok, one more sentence to finish the post:
“Refuse to believe that the daily hours Luther and Wesley and Brainerd and Judson spent in prayer are idealistic dreams of another era.” – Page 57.