Monthly Archives: October 2017

10-29-17 SOLI DEO GLORIA: TO GOD BE THE GLORY

SOLI DEO GLORIA: TO GOD BE THE GLORY

Romans 11: 33-36

 

My grandmother used to sell World Book Encyclopedias. Our family owned a set when I was growing up, and as a young family in the 1980s, Mary Ann and I bought a set. Along with my Merriam-Webster Dictionary that I got as a high school graduation gift, and a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, I had all the general reference books I needed! Can you imagine? My search engines were my fingers, flipping through the pages and my eyes scanning the line!  Research took lots of time and searching. Ten years ago I sadly got rid of our set of world books. There were new kids in town: their names were Google, and Yahoo, and other funny names. They are our new search engines. I even had to use Google to double-check how to spell Merriam-Webster! We are in an age when information can get encapsulated and digested quickly. In some ways, it’s a wonderful time in which to live.

 

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were new kinds of churches that looked different from the church in Rome with which they had distinct objections. These people who only sought to reform the church, ended up starting new branches of the church universal. The people who resented their work and their stands called them the “ProTEST-ants.” And soon the name stuck: Protestants. The Reformers had looked in 2 Timothy 3:16 and read: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching…. and for training in righteousness.” They looked in Romans 3:28 and read: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith, apart from works or law.” Then they looked in Ephesians 2:8-9 and read: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” And they discovered a pinnacle teaching of the New Testament in Acts 4:12: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to us by which we are saved.” The Church of Rome had its own guiding documents, but now the new branches—led by people with names like Zwingli, Calvin, Luther, and Knox—had to come up with new statements of beliefs based on the Bible. So they created Confessions of Faith (that are really statements of faith). Some of them were called the Second Helvetic Confession, the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, Luther’s Small Catechism, and the big Westminster Confession of Faith with its Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The last one that I named, called the Westminster Assembly, met in Westminster Abbey, London on July 1, 1643, “and continued in active session for five years, six months, and twenty-two days. During that time there were 1,163 meetings of the full assembly, and many hundreds of meetings of committees and subcommittees. The Directory for Public Worship was completed in December 1644 … The Form of Government was completed in November 1644 … and the Confession of faith was completed in December 1646!” [Church Officer Preordination Curriculum, Revised. James E. Simpson, Geneva Press, 1986, p. 36.] Presbyterians consider that Westminster Assembly so important that many of our churches are named “Westminster” including ours! The Shorter Catechism was designed as a teaching tool for new members or communicant’s classes. The first question it asked was a classic: It’s original first question: “What is the chief end of man?” Answer: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Even back in that day; even at the end of countless meeting, the essence of the message of Scripture boiled down to that! We are to glorify God. That is one of our main purposes in life.  If you want a “Purpose Driven Life” as Rick Warren’s book suggests, start by glorifying God. His first chapter confirms it with the title; “It All Starts with God.” And the Bible bears witness to it! But the Biblical search engines before the Internet age were called “Nicene Creed,” “Apostles’ Creed,” and the confessions of faith I just named! They helped pinpoint and reference the theological terms and concepts spread through many pages of the Bible. In the Reformer’s day, obtaining a Bible was difficult. But with the advent of the printing press, people could begin to actually own a Bible; and thanks to people like Wycliffe, and Luther and others, they could read it in their own language instead of Latin. But where to find teachings about God’s glory, or God’s love; or how to treat a neighbor; or messages of reconciliation? The Creeds, Confessions or Faith, and the Catechisms tell us. Read diligently, they were designed to remind you and to tell others, what you believed. They still serve that purpose.

 

Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher who explained the idea of glorifying God with images of a theatre. Kierkegaard said in the great drama of worship, most people think of the congregation as an audience, the ministers and choir as actors, and God as a Cosmic Director. But Kierkegaard said “no.” He said that, in fact, the congregation is intended to be the actors—the ones giving glory and praise to God. The ministers and choir members are the directors—helping to encourage and inspire that glory, and God is the audience—the one receiving the glory and praise! Glory encompasses God and is rightfully God’s alone, or on occasion, God in Christ. For example in John 1:14 we read: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” An example of ones who ascribed glory to God also includes angels, seraphim, and cherubim. In Luke 2 an angel announces the birth of the Christ child and invites shepherds to see him. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest!” Here’s another example: According to Nehemiah 9:5, on the twenty-fourth day of the month, the people of Israel heard their leaders say: “Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting! Blessed by God’s glorious name which is exalted above all blessing and praise!” Also the words from Psalm 145:5 “On the glorious splendor of thy majesty, and on they wondrous woks, I will meditate. [O God]” Or the passage from Psalm 19:1 that Felix Mendelssohn incorporated into the grand anthem: “The Heavens are telling the glory of God.” And if ever there was a master of the age, who captured the glory of God in his music, it was Johann Sebastian Bach. Countless choral anthems give glory to God. But “on almost all of his manuscripts, Bach placed two sets of initials. At the end he wrote the letters, “S.D.G., Soli deo Gloria—to God alone be the glory. And J.J, Jesu juvet—Jesus help me.” [Christ in the Seasons of Ministry, John Killinger, Word Books, 1983, p. 51] Paul, of course, wrote in Romans 11:36: “For from God and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

 

Today we owe so much Biblical understand to people like the apostle Paul, John Wycliff, John Hus Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and John Knox. Of course there is one more person; the one who—500 years ago this Tuesday, this All Hallows Eve—nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and nothing has been the same since. He lived to teach, to persuade, and to translate the Bible into German. Churches around the globe are celebrating the 500 years since that momentous event. And people like Mary Ann and me have traveled to Germany and seen a church where Luther had preached, the place where he was tried, and the castle where he was hidden away from officials. Author Eric Mataxas, perhaps to commemorate this 500th year, has just had his seventh book published: Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World.” He begins the book like this:

In 1934, an African American pastor from Georgia made the trip of a lifetime, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, through the gates of Gibraltar, and across the Mediterranean Sea to the Holy Land. After this pilgrimage he traveled to Berlin, attending an international conference of Baptist pastors. While in Germany, this man—who was named Mike King—became so impressed with what he learned about the reformed Martin Luther that he decided to do something drastic. He offered the ultimate tribute to the man’s memory by changing his own name to Martin Luther King. His five year old son was also named Michael … but he decided to change his son’s name too, and Michael King, Jr. became known to the world as Martin Luther King Jr. [Viking Press, 2017, p. I]

 

I didn’t know that story before. I knew that cartoonist Bill Watterson named his mischievous boy Calvin after who he called “the great Protestant reformer, John Calvin;” and Hobbes after “the great social philosopher, Thomas Hobbes.” The Reformers have made their mark not only in Presbyterian and Reformed Churches, but also in Episcopal Churches, Methodist Churches, Lutheran Churches, Baptist Churches, and more. Together, when ever we worship on The Lord’s Day, we join in choruses from Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” to the Fanny Crosby gospel song “To God Be the Glory.” We have learned that we are a church reformed, and always reforming. But we will never change our focus. Scripture alone is our authority; we are justified by faith alone; saved by grace alone, and through Christ alone. And to God alone be the glory. So may it be forever and ever.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           October 29, 2017

10-22-17 SOLUS CHRISTUS: CHRIST ALONE

SOLUS CHRISTUS: CHRIST ALONE

Acts 4: 8-12

 

Dr James Allan Francis, in his book The Real Jesus and Other Sermons, published by Judson Press in 1926, wrote these words about our Lord:

]

Let us turn now to the story. A child is born in an obscure village. He is brought up in another obscure village. He works in a carpenter shop until he is thirty, and then for three brief years is an itinerant preacher, proclaiming a message and living a life. He never writes a book. He never holds an office. He never raises an army. He never has a family of his own. He never owns a home. He never goes to college. He never travels two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He gathers a little group of friends about him and teaches them his way of life. While still a young man, the tide of popular feeling turns against him. One denies him; another betrays him. He is turned over to his enemies. He goes through the mockery of a trial; he is nailed to a cross between two thieves, and when dead is laid in a borrowed grave by the kindness of a friend.

Those are the facts of his human life. He rises from the dead. Today we look back across nineteen hundred years and ask, What kind of trail has he left across the centuries? When we try to sum up his influence, all the armies that ever marched, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned are absolutely picayune in their influence on mankind compared with that of this one solitary life…

 

Those classic words begin our time today. So far in this series we have affirmed that there is no equal to the Bible as our guidebook for life: Scripture Alone. Ullrich Zwingli was the Reformer who was the biggest proponent of that stand. Next, we looked over the shoulder of Martin Luther in his discovery as a priest. He turned in Paul’s Letter to the Romans and read: in Romans 3:28 that “people are justified by faith apart from works of law.” The Sola? Sola Fides: Faith Alone. Last week we heard Paul himself expound on another bedrock of the Reformed faith: In Ephesians 2:8 he wrote: “For by grace you are saved through faith; this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” The Sola of course? Sola Gratia- by Grace Alone. Today we come to the pinnacle of Christian understanding. if we were to use one of Jesus’ analogies, we would say it’s the one that separates the sheep from the goats; or actually the Christians from the non-Christians. Solus Christus- though Christ Alone. There are plenty of titles for Jesus: “Lamb of God,” “Good Shepherd,” “The Door,” or “The Way” just to name a few. Jews of his day called him “Rabbi.” But the pinnacle for followers of Christ is answering this question from Jesus. In Matthew 16:15 Jesus asks his disciples this question: “Who do you say that I am?” Here is the gold-standard answer that Peter gave, and it is the answer for each of us who call ourselves Christians: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” People who follow Jesus as Lord (not just as a good example, or a prophet, or an enlightened man, but truly as Lord) call him the “Christ,” (which means the Anointed One, or Messiah.)  Years ago I had a man challenge me on that subject, claiming we should only call Jesus “Christ” and not “The Christ.” He said calling Jesus “the Christ” is a “new age falsehood.” Tell that to Peter who said it! Tell that to Jesus who affirmed it and gave Peter the keys to the Kingdom! Christ is not a last name; it is a powerful affirmation: like “ the Messiah.” “The Christ” means there is no other. And there is not. There is no other name by which we are surely saved. The Reformers wrenched a different idea away from the church leaders of their day; the church in the 15th and 16th centuries said Christians were not entirely saved by Jesus’ death on the cross and his rising to new life. Salvation, they said, had to be completed by the church, through the sacraments, administered by a priest. The Reformers, with their noses buried in Scripture, declared what Peter declared in Acts 4: 11-12: [Jesus Christ of Nazareth] is the stone that the builders rejected, which has become the head and the corner. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among us by which we must be saved.”    That is the foundation of the Christian faith. Notice all the builder’s terms. Jesus is “the head and the cornerstone.” A proper cornerstone sets the direction that a building will face. Set it at the wrong angle and a wall could veer too close to a nearby building or street. The cornerstone, placed first, gives direction to the church building. We can set the direction for our lives when we set the cornerstone of Christ in our life first. There is no other compass that need be in the Christian tool belt than one, like our steeple, that points heavenward, to true north.

 

Permit me a rather extensive description of how Martin Luther came to know the ultimate power of Christ on the cross. You’ll recall, first of all, that Jesus himself claimed that title—the Christ—in Mark 14: 61. The High Priest, questioning Jesus, asked him: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said these revolutionary words: “I am; and you will seen the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”  Jesus is the Christ. And for many, that is the greatest comfort and blessed assurance. The great late Dr. Roland Bainton, theologian, minister, and Professor of Church History at Yale Divinity School, wrote this brilliant description in his book Here I Stand- A Life of Martin Luther:

Luther had come into a new view of Christ and a new view of God. He had come to love the suffering Redeemer and the God unveiled on Calvary. But were they, after all, powerful enough to deliver him from the hosts of hell? The cross had resolved the conflict between the wrath and the mercy of God, and Paul had reconciled for him the inconsistency of the justice and the forgiveness of God, but what of the conflict between God and the Devil? Is God lord of all [Luther wondered], or is he himself impeded by demonic hordes?

[A Mentor Book, 1950, p 50.]

 

Luther felt tormented by the Devil The Reformers, particularly Luther, were working to carve out the full power of our Savior Jesus over the Devil. And they did it by digging into Scripture and in some cases, putting it to verse. Listen to one verse of many of Luther’s that is similar in meter to that of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” which we will sing next week:

Thus spoke the Son, “Hold fast to me,

From now on thou wilt make it.

I gave my very life for thee

And for thee I will stake it.

For I am thine and thou art mine,

And where I am our lives entwine

The Old Fiend cannot shake it.”

{Bainton, p. 51]

The old fiend cannot shake it. Luther wrote about how he had grounded himself in Christ.

 

John Killinger author and former Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Lunchburg, Virginia, gave the summer Princeton Institute of Theology lectures in 1982, the year after I graduated. He was addressing students preparing for the Christian ministry. He told them this:

Christ and you. Christ and me. Christ and us, if you will forgive the emphatic bad grammar. Our problem is that we run dry, don’t we? The energy goes, the pump gives out; the bread is exhausted, because we get so busy supplying everybody else’s needs…. Lets not pretend, with each other or ourselves. Ministry is a lonely place without Christ. Ministry is exhausting without Christ. Ministry is impossible without Christ. Feeding on him is the only way to make it….  [Christ in the Seasons of Ministry, Word Books, 1983, p. 51]

 

Today, if you are saved by Christ, there is not an asterisk by that claim that says—in small print—“and also through the church, and through the sacraments, and through my good works.” No. We are saved through Christ alone, or we’re on sinking sand. What a blessed assurance God offered Paul when he inspired the New Testament; and what an assurance we find written in the book of Acts, chapter 4: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among us by which we must be saved.”

 

I started with the words of Dr. James Allan Francis known as “One Solitary Life.” Let me close with the words of Stuart Townsend and Keith Getty from our anthem today. It is a wonderful statement of faith. In part it reads:

In Christ alone my hope is found. He is my light my strength, my song: this Cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm…. And as He stands in victory, sin’s curse has lost its grip on me; for I am his, and he is mind bought with the precious blood of Christ….Here in the pow’r of Christ I stand.

 

Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          October 22, 2017

 

 

10-15-17 SOLA GRATIA: GRACE ALONE

SOLA GRATIA: GRACE ALONE

Ephesians 2: 4-9

 

When I was a sophomore in college, I changed my major to English Literature. As a high school student I regularly got As and Bs. College was an adjustment; I had to really study; and take notes; and buy books and write in them! Toward the end of the semester it was time to write a major term paper. It took days to do but I completed it and believed it to be good.  A few days later my professor called me into his office. He handed me my term paper! F! I had a big, red F on my paper with lots of notes written all over it in red pen. My eyes filled with tears.  “What’s wrong with it Professor Williams?” I asked. “You plagiarized!” he roared. “You stole someone else’s words!”  “What do you mean?” I asked. He replied: “ You took words right out of encyclopedias and included them as if they were yours.” In my head I was trying to figure that out. In my high school classes that was the way I had written papers. I thought that is what research was about! I was wrong.  My professor went on to explain: “Anything; anything you write that is not your own thought, or are not your own words, must be quoted and footnoted.”  My paper had few of either. According to my college handbook, he could have failed me in the very subject I had chosen as my major. “Is there anything I can do about this?” I asked lamely and desperately. My professor paused and he sighed. “You can go back to the library, and in the next two days before grades have to be turned in, rewrite this paper, footnoting everything that is not your own thought. Bring it back in, and I’ll re-grade it, then average the two grades.”  That is one of my most memorable experiences of grace: a gift from the one in power. He didn’t have to do that; I was holding up his grading. I turned in the second paper; when I got it back, I got a B+ on it. Averaged with the F on my first paper, I got a C in the class; not an F!  What a lesson! So when I wrote my Doctoral Project a few years ago, every thought that I found in a book had a footnote!

 

Grace makes people grateful. Grace is a gift, and it was a subject about which that Paul felt most powerfully, and that Jesus illustrated most abundantly. Let’s first look at Paul.  Have you noticed that even when he had important things to say, he would begin his letters with this greeting: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul was profoundly grateful for grace. “Grace” was the traditional greeting between Gentiles; peace was the traditional greeting between Jews. Paul knew his audience;  he always started with “grace,” in part because he believed that the grace of the Lord Jesus saved “a wretch like him” to quote the hymn “Amazing Grace.” We’ll look at that again in a few minutes. Paul, as Saul, had persecuted Christians and had even given permission for their death.  He was astounded that Jesus himself would appear to him in a vision, asking why he was persecuting him! Scales fell from him eyes, and he was changed. It was a major change. He was baptized, and he began a life of witnessing. All because of the grace of the Lord Jesus, who met him instead of condemning him.  In the book Paul for a New Day, published by Augsburg-Fortress Press, Robin Scroggs says: “It is my conviction that Augustine and Luther were correct at least in finding the heart of Paul’s thought in the cluster of motifs summed up in the phrase, ‘Justification by grace through faith,…  Paul said it, but it was Luther, once again, who read it and was changed by it.”  Remember last week when I said the church of Luther’s day said the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ was not sufficient for salvation; that sacraments, administered by a priest, completed the salvation process? Well in addition, there were some priests in Luther’s day who were encouraged to take financial gifts, called indulgences, to move a loved one out a state of suspended destination they called purgatory, on toward heaven.  There is no term in the Bible such as purgatory; and there is no place in the Bible where giving more money gets a person closer to salvation or through the gates of heaven.  It’s not like the “pay to play” ideas in the world, where paying a high amount of money gets a person political or business favors.  The ways of God begin with the love of God. We love because God first loved us. Likewise, God has shown us grace so that we might show grace. That makes salvation a gift, pure and simple.

 

We’ve learned how grace became so important to Paul. Now we turn to Jesus, who had had story after story demonstrating the Grace of God. Many  were called “Parables of the Kingdom.” One I read today was from Matthew 18: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” You heard me read it. One person was brought before the king; the man could not pay. By rights the king could have been sold as a servant, along with his wife, his children, and his possessions, to recoup part of the debt. The story says, instead, that “Out of pity (that is, compassion, or grace) the king released him and forgave the debt.” What a gift! Like a judge who considers circumstances and metes out a lighter sentence than the full one allowed by law. Such a gift likely changed the life of that servant in the parable. It also can change the life of a  prisoner in a courtroom. In such cases an old life can be cast aside, and a new life can begin! Grace and love our top qualities of God! Here’s another parable Jesus told: Matthew 20: “The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” The early workers agreed to the wage and to the hours. The householder hired extra people later in the day. Some just worked for one hour. When it was time to collect their pay, the householder gave those who worked an hour the same amount as those who worked all day! Yes it sounded unfair! But Jesus couched the graciousness of the householder with these words: “Did I not keep my agreement with you? Do you begrudge me my generosity?” A third situation describing the gracious qualities of God is the woman caught in adultery, told in John chapter 8. In those days, the law stated that a woman charged with adultery could be put to death by stoning. You’ll find it in Deuteronomy 22:24.  The scribes and Pharisees brought the woman to Jesus wanting to hear what he said about the situation. It was clearly a test, and Jesus answered as if God were the judge on the matter. Here’s what Jesus said: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Case closed. Verdict rendered; grace offered. Can you imagine gratitude filling the heart of the woman? Jesus’ sentence released her from death when he said: “Go, and sin no more.” Grace offers such a gift for those who feel condemned by the law and ashamed of their sins!

On the cover of Pastor David Jeremiah’s book it says:

“Amazing Grace’ lyrics by John Newton, words from the Apostle Paul, both men Captured by Grace.” In his book he writes:

“As for courtrooms,… we’ve heard aggrieved families shouting at thugs as they stood to hear the verdict. And we’ve agreed with them, haven’t we? It’s part of our constitution. Aren’t we supposed to support justice and jeer at evil? …. The smallest toddler retaliates to losing a toy to another child. She doesn’t reclaim her toy calmly or dispassionately. She reacts in outrage. She seizes the toy and shouts recriminations at its thief…. We get mad and we get even. Why then, do we catch our breath upon observing behavior that precisely overturns these expectations? Grace is shocking…. Grace turns human politics on its head, right before our eyes….Grace suggests that human beings may be something more than honor graduates of the animal kingdom after all …. We find a smile, perhaps even shed a tear. It’s like warming the soul at a hearth on a chilly night.” [Integrity Publishers, Nashville, 2006, p. 12]

 

John Newton, the writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” deplored his life until “the change.” For him, the change was from an inhumane member of the crew on a ship that tortured and killed slaves, to a man who turned his life upside down and became an abolitionist. What could possibly forgive the actions of a man like that, except the amazing grace of God through the Lord Jesus Christ? The Apostle Paul deplored his life as Saul—the driven persecutor of Christians—until “the change.” His change was in meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus. After being saved by grace and not by the Law, Paul spent the rest of his life preaching tirelessly about the Good News that Jesus saves. And I myself, after the unforgettable encounter with my English Professor, the one who chose grace over what the college handbook said the penalty was for plagiarism, graduated as an English Major who footnotes everything! I was delivered from failure.

Grace is amazing. Years ago some hymnal editors tried to change the word “wretch” in hymnals, thinking that it didn’t describe the people in the pews. But they quickly changed it back, finding plenty of broken people who, after one terrible choice or another, felt like a “wretch.” If we do not feel like we have hit rock bottom, we have less desire to grab the lifeline that has been thrown to us.  Grace is one of the greatest gifts that get us back on track, giving us a second chance.  God wants that!

Will you accept the gift of grace?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           October 15, 2017

10-08-17 SOLA FIDE: FAITH ALONE

SOLA FIDE: FAITH ALONE

Romans 3: 21-28

 

Last week I said that the Reformer most tied to the first Sola—Sola Scriptura—was Ulrich Zwingli. His gifts of reading and interpreting Scripture made him assign the Bible readings and the sermon to the very end of each service, believing everything else pointed to the highlight of God’s Word. You may have visited churches where the sermon was the final event before a hymn and benediction- those are Zwinglian liturgies! But there was another Reformer—a major one—who found the books of the Bible that we are saved by faith alone. His name was Martin Luther. After a frightening time in a lightening storm, Luther became a monk, and later a Catholic priest. “When Luther entered the monastery, he thought it would please God and contribute to his salvation.”

[The Reformation for Armchair Theologians, Glenn S. Sunshine, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2005, p.20] How many of us do things to please God, or to try to bargain with our salvation or to save us from hell? Luther did. Listen to these words: “

Soon he began having severe problems with guilt that bordered on psychosis. According to theologian R. C. Sproul, the issue that faced Luther came from legal reasoning on Jesus’ words in the Gospel.  When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,’ in short, with every fiber of your being. So Luther asked himself, ‘What is the greatest sin?’ The only possible answer was, ‘Not loving the Lord with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.’ When Luther examined himself by this standard, he realized that his emotions, his will, and his thoughts were not controlled by love for God; thus they were all violations of the greatest commandment, and mortal sins.  The net result was that Luther became extremely frantic about his guilt, spending hours every day in confession to his spiritual director….  He engaged in more and more extreme penitential practices to punish himself for his sins. He still felt unforgiven….Then something happened. While in a tower room in the monastery meditating on the Letter to the Romans, Luther was struck by a new interpretation of the phrase ‘righteousness of God.’ Martin had always thought this phrase referred to God’s absolute standards of righteousness the he expected us to live up to. Suddenly it dawned on Martin that the phrase actually referred to righteousness that comes from God to us by faith. Forgiveness of sins and salvation are thus freely available regardless of personal merit or lack thereof; it is all grace operating through faith. This doctrine, known as justification by faith, became one of the hallmarks of Protestantism …. [Sunshine, p. 21-22]

 

So our first Sola was the primary importance of reading and knowing scripture. Our second Sola was discovered right in the pages of the Bible! Yes, the prophet Habakkuk had said the words much earlier, between 608 and 598 B.C.E. But it was Paul’s masterpiece letter—the Letter to the Romans— studied by Luther and countless others, that made an impact. In the first chapter, the 17th verse, Paul offered his life-changing belief for the first time. Here is it: “As it is written, the …righteous shall live by faith.” And where had Paul read that before he wrote it? You know: Habakkuk 2: 2-4! But the second time Luther read it was Romans 3: 28. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” That was the new understanding that warmed and changed Luther’s heart. You might ask: “How was it taught before?” Let’s break down the verse. Justification. That’s a doctrine that says we will be “presented faultless before God just as if we had not sinned.” That’s good! But how are we justified? Some, like Luther before, believe that we are justified by our good works, meaning that we need to earn that condition of standing faultless before God; and if we have not earned it satisfactorily, we need to do penance—good deeds—to atone for (make up for) our own indiscretions. So people like Luther, who never feel worthy, either work hard to punish themselves, or they do the penance prescribed to them by a priest to “make up” for their sinfulness. But  Luther discovered that the New Testament says standing before God as if we have not sinned, does not occur because of what we do, or what priests do, or what the church does.  We can only be justified because of what God did.  It was, and is, a gift. It happened because the sins of the world were nailed to the cross of Calvary on which Jesus died. Jesus took the nails for our sakes; Jesus died through no sins of his own. That action—said Luther, and the Protestants, and the book of Romans—justifies us in the eyes of God if we fully believe in and put our trust in God. Simple yet powerful, right? But the other path of justification that the Church of Rome decreed that faithful Christians were partly justified by our faith; then they had to complete the process by participating in the church’s sacraments administered by a priest. That meant that those in that church had to participate in appropriate sacraments out of the seven: Baptism Confirmation, the Eucharist, Healing, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony—if they wanted to complete their salvation. Luther read Romans, and he knew his church’s stand. They were at odds with each other. Which would he choose? He chose Scripture, but then chose to debate the parts with which he had disagreements. He just wanted a discussion! That’s when zealous college students disseminated his 95 theses. With the recent invention of the printing press, that was easy! And the sixteenth century social media wheels started turning!

 

Can you imagine people sitting around contemplating if, or how, they are saved? They did; and they do! Many people of many faiths find it vital to consider what will give them eternal life. Many in our day hope that God grades on a curve and that their good deeds will get them through the Pearly Gates. Others believe the way the Church of Rome did in Luther’s day. Protestants believe that to be presented faultless before the throne of God happens just through our complete and unwavering belief in Jesus as Lord, who died on the cross for the sins of the world. That does it; but to believe that takes a leap of faith. The writer of Hebrews says that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  We like to believe what we have seen; but even our eyes can deceive us. In 1956, the captain of the beautiful Italian liner Andrea Doria was certain that an oncoming ship, the Stockholm, was passing on her port side. In the fog, eyes failed them and instruments did not support what they believed to be true. Instead the Stockholm tried to pass on the starboard side and ended up plowing her bow into the hull of the Andrea Doria. The luxury liner was doomed and sunk to the bottom of the sea. Eyes don’t always have it!

 

Others have been sure they heard strange noises. Such possibilities always get stoked about Halloween with the things that go bump in the night.  Sometimes our ears deceive us too! Faith is leaning on what we cannot see. There is no way (apart from science fiction of our day) to go back to the first century and see the events about which we believe. The spiritual hymn asks us, in a metaphorical way “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” The literal answer is no. But do we believe that it happened, and that the crucifixion of Christ changed the world? “Yes” says the faith-filled Christian. We believe it happened and that it has changed our life, and it will change our life beyond death.

 

So what are we to do? Perhaps we can join the man described in Mark 9:24 who said to Jesus: “I believe! Help my unbelief.” Perhaps a comforting word comes from author Kathleen Norris in her book called Amazing Grace; A Vocabulary of Faith. She says:

          Faith is a surprise to me, as I lived without it for so long. Now I believe that it was merely dormant in the years I was not conscious of its presence. And I have become better at trusting that it is there, even when I can’t feel it, or when God seems absent from the world. No small part of my religious conversion has been coming to know that faith is best thought of as a verb, not a “thing” that we either have or don’t. Faith is not discussed as an abstraction in the gospels….I appreciate much more the wisdom of novelist Doris Betts’s assertion that faith is “not synonymous with certainty…[but] is the decision to keep your eyes open.”  [Riverhead Books, 1998, p. 169]

 

So I tell you, if you chose to believe it, that the first century apostle named Paul said this: “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 five hundred more….” 1 Corinthians 15:3-6

 

How will you be presented faultless before the Throne of Grace, just as if you had not sinned?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 October 8, 2017

10-01-17 SOLA SCRIPTURA: SCRIPTURE ALONE

SOLA SCRIPTURA: SCRIPTURE ALONE

2 Timothy 3:16

 

Of all the Reformers that made a mark in their respective cities in the 16th century, the one to which we most owe the idea of Sola Scriptura is a man named Ulrich Zwingli.  Born just seven weeks after Martin Luther in 1484, his home was in Switzerland but he was educated in Vienna and Basel. He showed a remarkable talent for biblical exegesis, that is, the ability to read and interpret Scripture.  So Zwingli gave prime importance to the way Scripture was read and interpreted. Presbyterians and others in the Reformed tradition owe a debt of gratitude to him for that stance. Often we get stereotyped as people of the “head” while Methodists are people of the “heart.”  Yes but!  There are some very passionate and compassionate Presbyterians and there are some very capable and learned Methodist preachers.

 

All Presbyterians believe the Bible is the Inspired Word of God; that is to say, that God guided what to write and how to express it through prayerful conversations and illuminating visions. We believe that the Bible is without equal as our handbook for living and for glorifying God. As I told the children today, my Boy Scout Handbook was the best way to read how to be a Scout, with my Scoutmaster as my best guide, along with my Senior Patrol Leader and my parents. When it comes to my car, my owner’s manual has the best answers for maintaining or fixing my car, guided by a trusted mechanic.  When it comes to Christianity, the Bible is still the best book to go to as a handbook, and a trusted Pastor is a good guide.  The Bible also tells us most reliably about who God is. I showed the children a book called “The Christian Handbook,” that had common sense helps and regular practices in local churches. It is fun and interesting to read! But the parts about right and wrong, the parts about the Almightiness of God and the amazing birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus all come from the Bible. Yes great anthems and hymns often give glory to God, but their words are largely based on the Bible. And yes there are some wonderful Bible commentaries I could recommend, but they illuminate the Bible; they do not take the Bible’s place. In fact, back when Zwingli was advocating for the Bible, Martin Luther chimed in from Germany saying, in his opinion, Scripture should only be interpreted by the conscience. Such a statement, however, can initially lead to very different interpretations. For example, just trusting one’s conscience in the reading and understanding of the book of Revelation can lead to confusion or fear about the meaning of a passage. If you go to a library or a Christian bookstore to get books to try to understand your Bible, you can pick up five different commentaries written by five different authors that each giving widely divergent interpretations. Who do you trust? Which do you choose? This is not the time to go to the minefield of the Internet, with writers of wildly different educations, viewpoints, and even agendas. This is not the time when the Internet is your friend!  Instead, you’ll need a pastor or a Bible or Sunday School teacher you trust.  My goal is to always give you an informed answer to any Bible questions. It is your right to believe differently, but having someone, like a Bible teacher or preacher, whose goal it is to feed and encourage your soul, is best.

 

Second Timothy is an urgent pastoral letter from a missionary to a protégé.

The missionary knows his good example is essential for credibility.

So he says: “Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my sufferings and my persecutions….” That is the kind of person you’ll want to guide you through Scripture: someone who has walked the walk and is has your best interest in mind! The writer of 2 Timothy goes on: “As for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” Yes, what a great piece of teaching! In the 16th century, there was growing unrest about the power and authority of the church, and growing distrust of its leaders. Some had little formal training on how to interpret the Bible! Such is the caldron from which suspicion, doubt, revolt and reorganization often takes place!  Leaders must remain trustworthy. People in that day started putting their trust, instead, in old sayings, in casual advice from friends, in myths, in legends, and astrological signs and in fortunetellers. People who have lost trust in the church’s leaders of today go to the same kind of sources sometimes to their peril. There is no guide for your Christian life better than Jesus, and there is no guidebook for your life better than Scripture. The Bible is the book on which all other Christian self-help books are based! Sola Scriptura!

 

Timothy then heard the words that are the fulcrum on which all other arguments depend. Here they are: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful of teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” In recent years there have been discoveries and illuminating television programs regarding other writings, scrolls, and books that did not make the cut into the Canon. The Canon is the name given to the books Christian scholars prayed over and studied for years and decided to include as Scripture. Hear me on this: unless you have a complete mastery of the Bible, and you know it backwards and forwards, don’t submerge your self in the other writings that have been unearthed that are not  Scripture. People who have done that have come up to me quoting what the Bible says, and it wasn’t what the Bible at all! It was from a book that didn’t make the cut! The most glaring example of that is people reading about Jesus’ childhood in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas likely written in the second century! A classmate of mine and Scripture scholar Dr. Bart Eherman says this: “Early Christians were naturally curious to learn the details of Jesus’ life….The Infancy Gospel of Thomas …was allegedly written by a man named ‘Thomas the Israelite.’ The Narrative begins with Jesus as a five year old boy and relates a number of incidents, most of them miraculous, that betray a streak of the mischievous in Joseph and Mary’s precocious son!” [Lost Scriptures, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 57.]  Remember: Bart Ehrman tenured Professor of Religion at UNC, Chapel Hill, says that is “legend.” We will leave it there. You perhaps have also heard people say, “As the Bible says” and then make a statement. A famous saying is: “The Lord helps those who helps who helps themselves.” But it is not from the Bible! Benjamin Franklin quoted it in “Poor Richard’s Almanac, and he likely got it from the Englishman, Algernon Sydney!

 

One final word: you may know that Christian singer Amy Grant sang: “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” Did she make up those words? No. They are a direct quote from Psalm 119: 105. Make the Word of the Lord a lamp unto your feet, and a light unto your path.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          October 1, 2017