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