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.
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.
Yesterday I quoted at length from Mike Reeves’ message on Justification (available on theologynetwork.org). Mike was addressing the intriguing question, “Why is it that Luther started the Reformation and Erasmus didn’t?” The first part of his answer focused on the contrast between their views of Scripture. For Erasmus the Scripture was to be revered, but could be squeezed to fit his own vision of Christianity. For Luther the Scriptures were the only sure foundation for belief, the supreme authority allowed to contradict all other claims. Now for the second part of Mike’s answer to the question:
But it wasn’t just the authority of the Bible that made the difference, it was also what they saw as the content of the Bible. For Erasmus the Bible was little more than a collection of moral exhortations. The Bible is all about urging believers to be more like Christ the example. Luther said, that’s just turning the Gospel on its head. Our issue is sinners first and foremost don’t need to copy someone, sinners need a Saviour! Sinners need, first and foremost, a message of salvation! . . . Without the message of Christ’s free gift of righteousness, his free gift of himself and all that he has, there would be no Reformation. Justification by faith alone was what made the Reformation the Reformation. . . . It was this gracious message of a sweet Saviour’s free gift of righteousness that made life changing ministries life changing.
Reformation is not a moral spring clean. It’s not a revolution against the old ways, anything old fashioned and ritualistic. It’s not just about opening the Bible, but not finding the message fully. This is a profound challenge for the church today – what message do people hear?
Our attitude to Scripture is the foundational issue for our preaching. The message we preach from the Scripture is the more visible issue in our preaching. Do we stand, no matter how much contemporary culture, even church culture, not to mention the attacks of the enemy himself, are arrayed against us? Do we stand and preach the message of Scripture, because we are absolutely committed to Scripture, because we are absolutely committed to the God who gave us the Scripture? Do we preach in light of these simple yet profound lessons from history?
There could be no end to posts dealing with lessons for preachers from the Reformation. I’d like to focus in on one today, then another tomorrow. Both of them were brought out very clearly in a series of messages by Michael Reeves on Justification (available, and well worth listening to, on theologynetwork.org). In the final session of a great series of talks, Mike asks “Why is it that Luther started the Reformation and Erasmus didn’t?” Let me quote the first part of Mike’s two-part answer to this question:
Why is it that Luther started the Reformation and Erasmus didn’t? Because Erasmus is the one who unleashed the Greek New Testament onto Europe. He was getting the Bible out there, so why didn’t he start the Reformation? Well, even though Erasmus was a constant and deep student of the Scriptures, the Scriptures didn’t actually do a lot for him because of how he treated them. Erasmus kept banging on about how vague the Scriptures are (which is very convenient for his own theology), and so he gave them very little practical, let alone overruling, authority. So although he looked at Scripture, the message of Scripture could be tailored, squeezed, adjusted to fit his own vision of what Christianity is.
The only way to break out of that suffocating scheme and achieve any substantial reformation and change in the world – well, it took Luther’s attitude, that Scripture is the only sure foundation for belief. The Bible had to be acknowledged as the supreme authority. It had to be allowed to contradict and overrule all other claims, because if it couldn’t do that, it itself would be overruled and hijacked by another message, as it was with Erasmus. In other words a simple reverence for the Bible was never going to change the world, even quite a high view of the Bible was never going to do much. Sola Scriptura. Scripture alone was the indispensable key for change. Without acknowledging that the Bible has that supreme and foundational authority there would be no Reformation. No Reformation in peoples’ hearts, no Reformation in the world.
That final emboldened text is well worth a “selah” for preachers. On this matter are we an Erasmus, or a Luther?