Happy Hallowed Reformation Day

While small super heroes and tiny princesses are parading around during Halloween, it is appropriate for Christians to reflect upon another October 31st event, the birth of the Reformation. On October 31st, 1517 an Augustinian German Monk named Martin Luther nailed to the door at Wittenberg his 95 thesis (issues he had with the Catholic Church). The 95 thesis are not particularly revolutionary in themselves. Initially very few people paid any attention to what Luther wrote. It is highly unlikely Luther even considered hammering his work as a spectacular event. Yet, history bears witness to tumultuous consequences and blessings of his action. When we reflect back on Luther and on the Reformation, we are celebrating three things: living by faith, Scripture over tradition, and giving God all the glory.

Living by Faith

Prior to his revelation from Scripture, Luther operated under the belief that good works would merit salvation. The German Monk’s conscience was uneasy with this proposition. No matter how disciplined he was, how many good works he performed, or prayers he made, Luther was condemned by sin. Every good work was tainted. Every action was infected with selfishness. If salvation were in his own hands, Luther believed he was condemned already. The revolutionary change in Luther’s thinking came from Romans 1:17. In Romans 1:17 Luther believed he found the heartbeat of the gospel—the righteous shall live by faith. Those who would be righteous need not trust in good works but must live by faith. Therefore, Luther challenged the Pope’s authority to forgive and remit sins (thesis 5). Nothing but faith in Christ alone could save humanity. This tenet of the Reformation would come to be known as Sola Fide (Faith Alone). Celebrating the Reformation means celebrating the forgiveness by faith alone.

Scripture Over Tradition

While Luther was contemplating Sola Fide, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican Monk, was selling indulgences to the masses. Tetzel became known for his famous couplet:

“As Soon Coin in the Coffer Rings,
a Soul From Purgatory Springs.”

Unbaptized babies, those who died without full grace, anyone with earthly attachments, they all were candidates for an extended stay in purgatory. Purgatory was a place for the purging of sin and earthly attachments, in order to make one fit for heaven. Fortunately, the faithful on earth could buy purgatorians a fast pass to heaven—an indulgence.

Luther, who wasn’t known for his quaint rhyme scheme (see A Mighty Fortress), took issue with Tetzel and the indulgence scheme. Once one accepted salvation by faith alone, good works could no longer merit salvation. For Luther, Scripture trumped the tradition of purgatory. No tradition was a greater authority than Scripture itself. The Bible for Reformers was the only infallible, inerrant, and sufficient source for faith and practice. Any church tradition that did not line up with Scripture needed to be reformed. Luther’s belief in going back to the source, the Bible, became known as Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). To reflect on the Reformation means opening the Word of God and allowing its infallible authority to change our lives.

Giving God the Glory

When Bach and Handel wrote their magnificent pieces, they would sign Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone). Every work, every action, every day for the Christian is given fully and entirely to the glory of God. Once a sinner, now redeemed by Jesus’s own blood, the believer lives his life for God’s glory. Celebrating the Reformation means celebrating a great change in the human heart. The motive of good works is no longer one of fear. Through Jesus, the believer is able to perform good works out of love.

Ultimately, celebrating the Reformation is sweeter than the occasional Trick or Treat on October 31st. We are not just remembering those who gave their lives in defense of the Christian faith. We are not just celebrating 500 years history. We are giving thanks for Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins. We no longer need to mask ourselves behind a thin veil of good works. We need not pretend to be anything other than what we are – sinners in need of grace. As believers in Christ, we walk by faith knowing that Scripture declares Jesus died for sins. Today when you remember the Reformation, don’t just be thankful for some list of historical facts. The men and women of the Reformation, who gave their lives so we could practice our faith freely, lived to the glory of God. All of humanity can be saved by grace through faith alone (sola fide) according to the Scriptures (sola scriptura) to the glory of God the Father (soli deo gloria).

Pastor Summerville First Baptist Married to Danielle, father of three, PhD student at SWBTS, MDiv 2012 SWBTS, BA Theatre OSU.

Eugene Peterson and the Pastoral Heart behind The Message

Yesterday morning, Eugene Peterson—famed author and pastor—entered into his heavenly reward. In his honor, then, I think it reasonable to reflect on his pastoral heart as reflected in The Message.

The Message is described by many as a paraphrase, and we who describe it as such are quick to clarify its categorization as a paraphrase and not a translation. In many ways, I wonder if in our concern to protect the words of God, we failed to appreciate that which Peterson sought to provide in The Message—an accurate presentation of the “heart” of the Word of God.

The Story behind The Message

In his description of the events that led up to his paraphrase, he wrote of a time in the early 1980s when a financial downturn sparked heightened anxieties (especially concerning race) among those in the church he pastored and in his community. He recalled the dismay he felt as a pastor who, for twenty years had preached “the good news that Jesus had overcome the world, [defined] their neighbor with Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan, [defended] them against the status quo with Jesus’ story of the cautious servant who buried his talent. [He] had led them in Bible studies that [he] supposed were grounding them in the freedom for which Christ had set [them] free, keeping their feet firmly in, ‘but not of,’ the world around [them] for which Christ died. And here they were, before [his] eyes, paralyzed by fear and ‘anxious for the morrow.”

In light of his realization and as the result of his pastoral concern, Peterson began “plotting a pastoral strategy” to help them understand their identity “as free people in Christ, a people not ‘conformed to the world’ but living robustly and spontaneously in the Spirit.” So, Galatians seemed the right place to begin. After all, Peterson was angry and Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia is Paul’s angriest letter.

His plan was simple. He would teach through the book of Galatians in an adult class over the course of a year and then to preach through the same book the next.

His described his goal: “I was going to soak them in Galatians. They were going to have Galatians coming out of their pores. After two years they wouldn’t know whether they were living in Galatia or America. But they were going to know something about freedom, the freedom for which Christ set them free.”

He arrived the next Sunday morning, brewed the coffee, laid out the Bibles, and awaited the arrival of his church members. They trickled in, grabbed their coffee, and opened up to Paul’s Angry Epistle and sat there, smiling sweetly.

The fireworks that Peterson anticipated never lit. They were completely disconnected from Paul’s emotional response in the text. He recalled “frustrating and fuming” to his wife later that afternoon. He thought he might teach them Greek—”if they read it in Greek, those sweet smiles will vanish soon enough. If they read it in Greek, Paul’s somersaulting, cartwheeling, freedom-trumpeting Greek, they’ll get it.”

His wife sweetly smiled and said “I can’t think of a better way to empty out the classroom.”

Peterson understood that a course on Koine Greek wasn’t the solution to his concern. So he took to the task himself. He read Paul’s letter in Greek and sought to translate it in a manner that, while taking some linguistic freedom, accurately communicated Paul’s emotional thrust from Galatians 1. He wrote, “I just wanted them to hear it the way I heard it, the way the Galatians heard it, the way Luther heard it, the way so many men and women through our Christian centuries have heard it and found themselves set free by and for God.”

So the next Sunday, he arrived early again and brewed the coffee. But instead of laying out the Bibles, Peterson provided the first chapter of Galatians in his own words. And his class caught sight of Paul’s emotional response to the false teaching in Galatia. And over the course of the following months, week-after-week, his class gathered and read God’s Word afresh—not in a manner overly concerned with replicating each word in translation, but with communicating God’s heart and pathos as demonstrated in his words.

Peterson went to publish his studies on Galatians in Traveling Light: Modern Meditations on St. Paul’s Letter of Freedom in 1982. Years later, an editor wrote to him, explaining that he had photocopied the translation portions, “taped them together, and [had] been carrying them around ever since, reading them over and over and reading them to [his] friends.” He then encouraged him to translate the entire New Testament.

Thus began his work on The Message.

The Heart behind The Message

It began with a pastor’s concern that his congregation understand God’s Word. It wasn’t enough that they had his Word before their eyes and a pastor willing to teach them. They didn’t connect with God’s heart. Beginning with the Greek (and later, the Hebrew), Peterson carefully translated Scripture to English and then sought to depict New Testament images and metaphors into the twentieth century vernacular.

So, when we describe The Message, let us guard our own hearts from being unnecessarily dismissive. It is not a translation. It was never intended to convey God’s Word alone. It was intended to demonstrate his heart.

And for that, we can be truly thankful for the life of Eugene Peterson.


Source: “God’s Secretaries,” in Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2006), 121–36.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

What made David Brainerd stand out?

Introduction to his Life

In the late Spring of 1747, Jonathan Edwards welcomed a terribly sick young missionary by the name of David Brainerd into his home. The young man was dying of tuberculosis—a disease that plagued Brainerd’s life and ministry for seven years until finally taking it on 9 October 1747. Edwards recalled that he found Brainerd to be, “remarkably sociable, pleasant, and entertaining in his conversation; yet solid, savory, spiritual, and very profitable.”

Years earlier, a controversy had been brewing in New England as the result of the Great Awakening. Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches had experienced significant differences of opinion concerning revivalistic preachers such as George Whitefield and the new converts resulting from their ministry. Those clinging to a more traditional faith looked with contempt upon those who were emphasizing excitement and emotional responses to the revivals taking place. In 1741, Edwards was invited to give the commencement address at Yale College in the hopes that he would chide the excitable student body and support the more conservative faculty. Instead, Edwards’s sermon, “The Distinguishing Marks of a Word of a Spirit of God,” defended the legitimacy of the Great Awakening and produced greater fervor and excitement among the student population.

Young David Brainerd was in the crowd as Edwards spoke and, though he ranked at the top of his class, he was expelled shortly thereafter for making a disparaging remark regarding one of the tutors. This expulsion radically altered the trajectory of Brainerd’s life, since in that day no one could be installed as a pastor in Connecticut unless they had graduated from Harvard, Yale, or a European University.

Brainerd was a devout, pietistic young man who, due to his expulsion from Yale, was no longer able to achieve the end to which he believed God had called him—to faithfully serve as a pastor. The faculty at Yale were unwilling to reinstate him, but he was charged by the Society in Scotland for Propogating Christian Knowledge to become a missionary to the American Indians in New England.

He served for a total of four years in three different places, experiencing the full spectrum of emotions as he saw seasons of openness and resistance to the gospel. And after the most fruitful season of his ministry, he began to succumb to the tuberculosis that had plagued his life; so he traveled to New England where he hoped to recover his health in order to return to those he affectionately deemed to be “his” Indians. Rather than recover, Brainerd was diagnosed as terminal and was nursed by Edwards’s daughter, Jerusha, until he passed into his eternal inheritance.

Though Brainerd only lived to see his twenty-ninth birthday, Edwards saw fit to edit and publish his diary and journal to the public. In doing so, an obscure missionary that few would have ever been aware of has become a pivotal example in piety, devotion, self-sacrifice, and perseverance to generations.

But what made Brainerd stand out for Edwards? What makes his ministry stand out today?

An Honest View of Self

Beneath Brainerd’s missionary efforts lay a gut-wrenching, honest appraisal of his own relationship with God. Upon reading his diary and journal, one may be struck by Brainerd’s lack of missionary zeal early in his ministry. He seems much more content to study, pray, and repent than to actually share the gospel with the indians in his care. One reason for this appearance is that Brainerd wrote his journal for public consumption (to be published by the Society in Scotland for Propogating Christian Knowledge), while his diary was written for the sake of his personal self-examination and to measure his spiritual growth. So, while his journal contains stories of preaching and conversions, his diary is full of self-introspection. This ongoing self-appraisal, and constant reminder of his own need for God’s sovereign goodness, provided the ballast he needed in order to effectively minister to others.

A High View of Preaching

One must not read Brainerd’s Life and Diary and not take note of the means by which he shared the gospel with the American Indians. He preached whenever he could find a hearer, but was convinced that, “only [God] can open the ear, engage the attention, and incline the heart of poor benighted, prejudiced pagans to receive instruction.” Brainerd understood that the Sovereign God works through the human preacher—leading Brainerd to herald the message of the gospel of Christ through an interpreter (who became the first to be baptized during Brainerd’s missionary endeavors).

A High View of Baptism

It is also noteworthy that Brainerd did not baptize new believers upon conversion, but instead, “deferred their baptism for many weeks after they had given evidences of having passed a great change.” Brainerd was not too quick to encourage new believers to enter into the baptismal waters, but first insisted upon observing the change in their lives as a result of the gospel. In doing so, he emphasized the weighty-witness that baptism is to believers and non-believers alike.

Conclusion

Brainerd’s ministry to the American Indians pales in comparison to the impact his life and sacrifice have made upon generations since his death. Yet, as one notes his intense self-introspection, the emphasis he placed upon gospel proclamation, and the weight he ascribed to the ordinance of baptism, one cannot help but turn the question toward our own efforts today.

Do we regularly seek examine our own walk with Christ? Do we value and lift high the proclamation of the gospel? Do we believe that the ordinances of the church really mean something?


Jonathan Edwards, The Life and Diary of David Brainerd

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Toleration? Or Free Exercise? George Mason Redivivus

American history buffs are already aware that Thomas Jefferson, when writing the Declaration of Independence, was influenced heavily and a drew from the pre-existing Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted by George Mason and approved by the Virginia Convention of Delegates in June 1776. Interestingly, it was also a source document and inspiration for James Madison’s Bill of Rights and Lafayette’s French Declaration of the Rights of Man.

In the 16th article, Mason wrote initially, “that all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” This, Madison could not, for lack of a better word, tolerate. He led the charge in altering the document to read, “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.”

Which raises the obvious questions. Does it matter? If so, what difference does it make?

For Madison, the edit made every difference. The very idea of toleration belonged to a system of government that had embraced a state church—liberty of conscience was a thing granted; it was allowed. But it could just as easily be disallowed. The notion of toleration is predicated upon a governing standard of religion that granted permission to dissidents.

Ensuring the free exercise of religion, then, meant that liberty of conscience was not a thing granted, but rather a thing recognized; it was a right that must not be infringed.

Students of Baptist history may recognize Madison’s concern. His friend and Baptist minister, John Leland, shared this point of emphasis and seems to have influenced Madison’s thinking on the subject.

Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for, is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration, is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest, to grant indulgence; whereas, all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.

Our current society really doesn’t know what to do with freedom of conscience. We’ve had previous administrations and present judiciaries trample all over it, emphasizing their defense of freedom of worship. That is to say, they were prepared to defend the right of the people to worship in their churches and houses of worship in whatever manner they saw fit. But those who dare to take those same convictions into the public sphere—cake bakeries, for instance—have stepped over the line from the realm of the defensible to that worthy of prosecution.

And why?

Because we, as a nation, have traded free exercise for toleration.

The spirit of George Mason has returned and we have reversed Madison’s edit without even the intellectual integrity to strike out the words on the document.

And the rights of all people—Christians and Jews, Muslims and Mormons, pantheists and atheists—suffer as the result. The state has determined that our liberty of conscience is no longer a right to be protected. Instead, it is a grace that has been extended to us. And they get to tell us just how far it extends.

Perhaps the time has come for another Leland or another Madison to step forward.

Source: John Leland, “The Excess of Civil Power Exploded,” in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, Including Some Events in his Life, Written by Himself, with Additional Sketches, &c. by Miss L. F. Greene, Lanesboro, Mass. (n.p., New York, 1845), 118.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.