Our Church History class in Sunday School this morning introduced Martin Luther (great timing, huh?), giving me more to study and blog about in the next few days. But today let’s take a Sabbath rest to enjoy Luther’s most famous hymn. More importantly, let’s join Luther in praising the Lord for His power and sovereignty.
Few people these days enjoy history. I have begrudgingly accepted that fact, as much as it frustrates me. But next Saturday marks the 498th anniversary of the event that triggered the Protestant Reformation. I hold the opinion that many current problems in evangelical circles stem from ignorance of and indifference to the battles that the early Reformers fought. For that reason, I choose to blog about this period of Church History with the hope that my readers will better understand the dangers of neglecting our spiritual heritage.
Martin Luther’s disagreements with the Roman Catholic Church originated with his study of Scripture, which he regarded as God’s highest authority. The Catholic Church (which held both religious and political authority at the time), by contrast, insists that it has authority equal to the Bible. It calls this doctrine “Magisterium.” Although Luther originally posted his 95 Theses strictly in response to John Tetzel’s oppressive tactics of selling Indulgences (see my last blog post), the resulting conflict alerted him to Rome’s elevation of ecclesiastical authority.
Magisterium usually diverted attention away from God’s Word, leaving 16th Century laity at the mercy of church officials. Luther suffered personally from the church’s false teaching that Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross required human effort in order for it to effect a person’s salvation; the church excommunicated him for preaching justification by faith alone. Yet he clung to his conviction that Scripture, not Magisterium, had to be his final authority.
Later in his ministry, Martin Luther’s writings reflected the lessons he learned from his battles with Rome:
[Commenting on Psalm 119] “In this psalm David always says that he will speak, think, talk, hear, read, day and night constantly—but about nothing else than God’s Word and Commandments. For God wants to give you His Spirit only through the external Word.”
As I read this quote, I marveled at how well it applies to a quite different controversy among present-day Christians. The Charismatic mysticism that teaches believers to expect direct revelations from God have infiltrated the broader evangelical church, again diverting our attention away from God’s Word. This divergence implies that God’s Word is insufficient to address the questions and needs of mankind. Even though this current problem differs from the Catholic teaching that Luther opposed, it also attacks Scripture in a dangerous way.
21st Century Christians must look back to the Reformers, and consider their many sufferings for the sake of the Bible. God’s Word must not be taken lightly, nor must those who profess to be Christians add to its authority! As we consider the Reformation, and the sacrifices that the great Reformers endured for the sake of the Bible, may we grow to appreciate this wonderful Book that contains the very breath of our God.
The world may celebrate on October 31st for unholy reasons, but I see it as a day of rejoicing. On that day, 498 years ago, a little German monk changed world history simply because he believed the Bible.
As a young law student, Martin Luther abruptly changed course and entered a monastery, believing that St. Anne had protected him from a near-fatal lightening strike. Once he’d become an Augustinian priest, however, he found himself continually struggling to find assurance of salvation. He flung himself into fasting, penitence, and ritual, agonizing in his efforts to appease God. One of his mentors encouraged him to look to Christ alone. That, Luther could not do. He’d been taught, by the Church of Rome, that God’s favor must be earned (just as he had earned St. Anne’s protection in the storm by vowing to become a monk).
Seeing Luther’s bright intellect, his superiors sent him to Rome, where he began noticing that the vibrant faith of early Christians had been replaced by the dead rituals of Catholicism. Disturbed by this observation, he felt further alienation from God, though he continued his priestly duties.
Upon arriving at the monastery in Whittenberg, Germany, Luther earned his doctorate in theology. This degree brought him into a teaching position at the University of Whittenberg. His preparations for his course on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans revolutionized his relationship with the Lord by convincing him that faith was the only criterion for salvation. He wrote:
My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement ‘the just shall live by faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning…This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.
Once Luther experienced the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, he grew even more troubled by the Roman church’s practices–particularly the practice of selling indulgences.
Here, I need to pause and give a cursory background on this practice, and how it was being used in 1517. According to Catholic teaching, the saints merited their own salvation, and accumulated a “treasury” of good works. These good works, for reasons that baffle me, were called “indulgences,” Representatives of the pope (such as the Dominican friar John Tetzel of Whittenburg–Luther’s contemporary) sold these indulgences with the claim that they would shorten someone’s stay in Purgatory. (In actuality, Rome had accelerated the sale of indulgences to fund the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica.)
Evidently, Tetzel was particularly corrupt in his methods, which greatly disturbed Luther. Clearly, both Rome and Tetzel exploited the poor by selling indulgences, which grieved Luther. But the unscriptural assumption of justification by good works troubled him even more than the exploitation did. At this point, Luther still believed in Purgatory, but he stood on the Bible’s teaching that only faith in Jesus Christ brings salvation.
On October 31, 1517, he nailed his 95 Theses to the University’s chapel door. condemning the selling of indulgences as well as promoting the idea of justification by faith. Indeed, he considered the doctrine of justification by faith to be foundational to Biblical Christianity. At one point, he wrote:
In short, if this article concerning Christ — the doctrine that we are justified and saved through Him alone and consider all apart from Him damned — is not professed, all resistance and restraint are at an end. Then there is, in fact, neither measure nor limit to any heresy and error.
Rome, of course, did not appreciate Luther’s theology. It regarded his teaching as an affront to papal authority, demanding that he recant. But Luther considered Scripture, rather than the pope, to be the supreme authority in representing God’s truth, so he boldly accepted excommunication. Along with other Reformers like Calvin and Zwingli, Martin Luther brought much of Europe back to the Bible.
As October 31 approaches, I intend to blog about the Reformation. Luther wasn’t the first to question Rome’s corruption of Biblical Christianity, but his 95 Theses served as a catalyst to the Protestant Reformation. Reformation principles, in turn, draw us back to Scripture. In blogging about the Reformation, therefore, I want to follow the example of one little German monk who risked everything he had for the sake of God’s Word.
A few years ago, someone scolded me on Facebook for holding to the “dead letter of a book” rather than enjoying a “living relationship” with God through His Spirit. I thought of her reprimand a couple days ago when one of Tim Challies’ links to a Kindle deal providentially misdirected me to Tom Olson’s January 22, 2015 blog post, Is It Possible for Christians to Idolize the Bible?
Olson produced helpful arguments as he reasoned from 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21 (please read both verses). He maintains that Scripture is breathed out from the Holy Spirit. That being the case, it makes little sense when people try to represent Scripture and the Spirit as being mutually exclusive (as my Facebook critic suggested). Olson explained that God’s Word, as given through the agency of the Spirit, facilitates our relationship with God.
Consider the primary descriptions of Scripture from the Bible itself:
- “All Scripture is breathed out by God…” (2 Timothy 3:16)
- “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21)
Add to this that one of the favored names of Jesus Christ is “The Word,” and you have a Trinitarian testimony that the Bible is not divorced from the Godhead, but is the tangible work of the Trinity in perfect harmony speaking to us.
Simply put, the Bible is the voice of God. The Father breathes out the Word. The Son is the Word incarnate. The Holy Spirit carried along the biblical authors so that they would speak “from God”. The Bible is the voice of God – not just the red letters – the whole Bible. As such, the question “Is it possible for Christians to idolize the Bible?” is inaccurate, because it forces us to drive a false wedge between God and his voice. Prioritizing God’s voice is prioritizing God, and thus prioritizing his voice cannot be thought of as idolatry.
Please know, I get it. The Scriptures and Jesus Christ are different entities. The Bible and the Spirit are unique from one another. But that does not mean we can or should treat them as such, divorcing them from one another.
So why did my love for and reliance on the Bible’s authority offend the woman on Facebook? I can’t judge her motives for certain, nor should I try to do so, but I can think of two possible reasons. Usually, people who accuse Christians of bibliolatry operate from one of two positions.
The less prevalent of the two (I hope) comes from a desire to accommodate sin without outright rejecting God. If we can minimize Scripture’s authority by hearing from “God” as we imagine Him, perhaps we can wiggle out of some demands that the Bible imposes on us. Maybe translators made mistakes, or maybe culture has advanced beyond the antiquated notions of the prophets and apostles. Surely God wouldn’t confine His expectations of us to a 2000-year-old book!
Typically, however, the people who make that accusation believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to people directly. They do agree that the Bible is God’s inerrant Word, and they’ll even say that it’s the final authority for Christians. Furthermore, they actually do wish to live in obedience to its precepts. But they also insist that “relationship” with Jesus must extend beyond the Bible through personal communication from Him. They want to feel His presence and to believe that they have unique relationships with Him.
Yet His Word does retain its authority and it is able to speak to us personally.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. ~~Hebrews 4:12 (ESV)
As we read these precious Spirit-breathed words, He shows us how they apply to us in the 21st Century. Far from being a dead book, the Bible overflows with more treasures than we know what to do with! In holding the Bible in high esteem, we use it as a vehicle to worship its Author in spirit and in truth.
Again, this series focuses, not on my disagreements with Love In Action, but primarily on my disobedience to the Lord during my time of working there. Although some of my actions conformed to the leadership’s philosophy, I must only judge myself.
Most of the leaders genuinely love the Lord, and neither their acceptance of psychology nor their embrace of Charismatic theology calls their salvation into question. Indeed, I was a Charismatic during the first six years I served with the ministry, and I agreed with many of the ideas they adapted from psychology. Yet my doctrinal flaws, though serious, didn’t negate my salvation. The only former colleagues I don’t respect are those who now live openly gay lifestyles while claiming to be Christian and those who no longer believe that salvation comes exclusively through Jesus Christ.
Leadership influenced some of my compromises, but (and please pay attention to this point) they never insisted that I incorporate psychological theories into my counseling letters. Hear me on this matter. They gave me wide latitude in how I wrote those letters. I chose to employ ideas that I learned from conferences, books, staff meetings and interactions with various people in their residential program.
So yes, I taught my counselees that homosexuality resulted from childhood traumas such as alienation from their same sex parent. Yes, I told them that examining their pasts and forgiving those who “wounded” them would eventually cause their homosexual inclinations to diminish. And yes (God forgive me), I sometimes even encouraged them to find “Christian” psychologists.
But worst of all, I’d often use God’s Holy Word to proof-text my points rather than developing points from prayerful study of Scripture. Routinely, I’d type a paragraph and then search through the Bible for a verse or passage to legitimize what I’d written. Sometimes I’d take a verse completely out of context, knowing full well that I handled God’s Word dishonestly. Sure, Bible verses saturated each letter, but not all those verses were used properly.
My deliberate mishandling of Scripture grieves me more than anything else about my 12 years of working for Love In Action. I know that God has forgiven me, so please don’t interpret this article as me wallowing in self-condemnation.
Instead, I implore you, no matter how you serve the Lord, to begin by understanding Scripture first, and then formulating your ministry around its principles. Feel free to distort psychology so that it conforms to the Bible, but be absolutely certain to use God’s Word reverently and accurately. I believe, had I ignored psychological precepts in favor of faithful ministry from Scripture, I would have pleased the Lord much more…and maybe He would have helped more people submit their homosexuality to Him.
Rather than spend time explaining how I, a heterosexual woman with Cerebral Palsy, wound up as a correspondence counselor for an ex-gay ministry, I’ll refer you to Answering God’s Call, which I wrote for the Love In Action newsletter in 1992. I want to spend our time today discussing how I misused my position in the ministry without making this a sleeezy tell-all article that wouldn’t point anyone to Christ, so I don’t want to get bogged down in a lot of history that I’ve already written.
I believe I initially joined the LiA staff with fairly good motives. Not perfect–but who (with the obvious exception of Jesus) does anything from pure motives? I did feel compassion for people who struggled with homosexuality. I felt even more compassion for straight women who, like me, had fallen in love with gay men. I wanted the Lord to use my pain to extend His comfort to other hurting people (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
Those good motives became corrupted as my superiors, co-workers and colleagues from other ex-gay ministries showered me with affirmation. My work subtly shifted from being my offering to the Lord to a tool to receive attention and praise. Of course, I denied it, feeling offended when a friend pointed out that I’d turned my job into an idol. But in reality, the job was far worse than an idol–I used it to flatter myself.
Looking back, I believe I squandered any eternal rewards I might have gained through working for Love In Action in favor of earthly rewards. I’m not talking about salvation, please understand. But I could have done that job with a desire to advance God’s kingdom instead of using it to inflate my own sense of self-importance. I grieve over the knowledge that, in the Believers’ Judgment, my time with Love In Action will amount to wood, hay and stubble.
10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. ~~1 Corinthians 3:10-15 (ESV)
But I don’t tell you all this to make a show of my contrition, for again that would put the spotlight on me instead of honoring the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, I write to warn others against perverting ministry into a means of self-fulfillment instead of recognizing ourselves as unworthy servants who do nothing more than our duty (please read Luke 17:7-10).
Christ deserves our service. He indeed would call us to minister to sinners of all types, including victims of either their own homosexuality or the homosexuality of a loved one by showing them how to walk in obedience to Him. Gays need assurance that their sexual preferences do not constitute their identity, and that the Holy Spirit will give them the resources to resist their overwhelming temptations. The Lord would call us to serve them humbly, not for our own glory, but that His glory might shine through them.
Those first two weeks of January 1971 hurt! I’d been reading the Bible, as well as consulting astrology books, Ouija boards and I forget what other resources, trying to determine if the feelings going through me represented “true love.” Thankfully (although I wasn’t yet born again), the Holy Spirit had given me the conviction that I should trust the Bible over and above all the other resources as my ultimate authority.
Through various passages of Scripture I learned that my feelings for the young man in question came, not from love, but from selfishness (1 Corinthians 13:4-6) . As I continued reading, He further taught me through Matthew 5:8 that my impure fantasies about the boy would prevent me from ever seeing God’s face. In short, I was going to hell.
That knowledge weighed heavily on my 17-year-old heart, and the liberal theology of the church I attended offered superficial relief. But on January 20 of that year, a Christian friend who had no idea what I’d been struggling with quoted John 3:16. By God’s grace, I understood that Jesus had died for my sin.
Filled with relief, I knew that His act of giving His life for me required that I in turn live for Him. The hymn I’ve selected to feature today reminds me of that precious moment, nearly 45 years ago, when the Lord showed me His grace and claimed my life for His purposes.