Suicide, Christianity, & the Meaning of Life

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If – as the Bible teaches – when a believer dies, their soul goes to be with God, where there is no longer any suffering, pain or sickness, then why would we not want to speed up the process a little bit? After all, as Paul the Apostle wrote to the Philippians, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23). Why not take up smoking, stop using sunscreen, and give up wearing seatbelts? Or, to take it even further, why not just go all the way and end your life now, so you can leave this harsh world behind and go to Heaven?

If that sounds preposterous, keep in mind that this was something that actually happened in early Christian history: there was a time when committing suicide became fashionable among Christians, and the church had to respond and try to end this tragic fad.

When Christians Were Killing Themselves

Until the Edict of Milan, AKA the Edict of Tolleration was issued in 313 AD, Christianity’s status in the Roman Empire was that of religio illicita, an “illicit” or illegal religion (as opposed to Judaism, which held the status of religio licita)During this time, Christians throughout the Roman Empire experienced waves of persecution, usually dependent on the attitudes of local authorities, although there were times when persecution was the official policy of the entire empire – such as during the reigns of Nero and Diocletian. Christians also faced persecution outside the Roman Empire.

During this period, many Christians were martyred, and martyrs were highly regarded and respected as those who had been willing to pay the ultimate price for their faith. In fact, martyrdom was so highly regarded, that people began to seek it out and desire it, as a way of expressing their devotion to Jesus. Ignatius of Antioch, for example, wrote about his desire to die as a martyr.

But some people took it even further. Jerome writes about a young woman named Belsilla who flagellated herself so much that she died from her self-imposed injuries. Another woman, Agathonike, upon witnessing the execution of a bishop by burning, also threw herself onto the fire, declaring “this is the meal that has been prepared for me.” She died in the flames, even though she had not been arrested nor charged. There are other accounts of Christians volunteering to be martyred even though they were not even being sought by the authorities. [1]

The Donatists, who considered themselves particularly hard core and dedicated, greatly desired to show their devotion by being martyred, some even going to the point of simply killing themselves to show how spiritual they were, i.e. how much they were not attached to this life and how much they desired to depart this world and be with Christ.

The Response of the Church

Seeking martyrdom and committing suicide became such a big issue with the Donatists in particular that it threatened the credibility, and even the existence of the church in their area of North Africa.

Judaism had always considered suicide to be sinful, whereas in pagan Roman culture it was considered an acceptable way to exit this life, and was practiced mostly by the wealthy, in part because slaves were not allowed to commit suicide since their lives did not belong to them, but rather to their masters.

It was Augustine of Hippo, a native of North Africa himself, who took up the challenge of addressing this issue and clarifying Christian thinking on this subject. In his book ‘The City of God’, Augustine considered what the Bible has to say about suicide and weighed various arguments for and against suicide. His conclusion was that suicide is always wrong as it is a violation of the sixth commandment (“Thou shall not murder”), and is never justified even in extreme circumstances. This became the official position of the church. [2]

The Meaning of Life

This whole issue touches on something which is core to Christian belief, and which sets Christianity apart from other worldviews and religions.

Many world religions view the world negatively, as a place of chaos, pain, and suffering – where the goal is to escape. This is the goal of transcendence and Nirvana in Eastern philosophies and religions, for example.

Christianity on the other hand, views this world positively. Rather than seeing the origin of the world as having come about through conflict or chaos, it is described as the thoughtful and good creation of a loving God. It is described as a garden paradise, given to us as a gift by our loving creator.

Although this good creation has been corrupted by sin and world currently “lies under the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), the world still retains its fundamental goodness, and God has promised that one day He will redeem His creation.

The purpose of our lives, according to the Bible, is not to escape this world, but to steward this world (Genesis 1:28), as well as our lives and everything we’ve been given, to the glory of God and for the benefit and salvation of others. In other words: the people of God have been given a mission which can only be carried out in this life, and therefore this life matters greatly. Rather than escaping this world, His desire for us is to be about His business as long as we live.

It is an unbiblical an anemic theology of life and the world which leads to the attitude that the most spiritual thing to do is to bide your time as you wait to get out of this world to be with God. True spirituality is rather to value this life and the unique opportunities it affords to do the work of God, and be involved in his saving and redeeming work.

As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. (1 Thessalonians 5:19)

Between now and the end of our lives, there is a whole space that is significant. How you live it matters greatly to God. There are things he wants you to do with that time (cf. Ephesians 2:10). The Christian life, in other words, is not simply waiting to die so you can go to Heaven. God has given you this life for a purpose and He wants to use you to advance His Kingdom and to touch lives. He values our lives, and so should we!

 

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Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Benefits of Studying Church History

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In his book, Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones discusses the following benefits of studying church history:

Church History Guards Us Against Error

Most of the theological discussions that people have today, as well as most heresies that exist today, were already discussed, debated and settled within the first 500 years of Christian history. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses are basically neo-arians, and their view of Jesus is the same one which led to the Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed. The modern heresies of today are really just rebranding and recycling older ideas which the church has already spent a lot of time addressing.

For more on Arius and Arianism, check out: Was It Necessary for Our Salvation that Jesus be God? 

Lloyd-Jones says this:

The way to safeguard yourself…is to learn something about heresies—how they arose in the past generally through very good and conscientious men. History shows how subtle it all is, and how many a man lacking balance, or by failing to maintain the proportion of faith, and the interrelationship of the various parts of the whole message, has been pressed by the devil to put too much emphasis on one particular aspect, and eventually pressed so far as to be in a position in which he is really contradicting the Truth and has become a heretic. So Church history is invaluable… It is not the preserve of the academics. I would say that Church history is one of the most essential studies for the [believer] were it merely to show him this terrible danger of slipping into heresy, or into error, without realising that anything has happened to him.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers (pp. 128-129).

Church History is a Source of Encouragement

Some people think about studying church history as being kind of like a visit to a sausage factory: the finished product might be great, but the way it was made wasn’t pretty. On the contrary, I would say that church history should cause us to be filled with wonder and amazement that in spite of human folly, errors, and mistakes, God has providentially guided and protected His Bride, because He loves her and is devoted to her.

Lloyd-Jones says this:

I know of nothing, in my own experience, that has been more exhilarating and helpful, and that has acted more frequently as a tonic to me, than the history of Revivals.

Take the time we are living in. What discouraging days they are, so discouraging that even a man with an open Bible which he believes, and with the Spirit in him, may at times be discouraged and cast down almost to the depths of despair. There is no better tonic in such a condition than to familiarise yourselves with previous eras in the history of the Church which have been similar, and how God has dealt with them.

The French novelist Anatole France used to say, whenever he felt tired and jaded with a tendency to be depressed and downcast, ‘I never go into the country for a change of air and a holiday, I always go instead into the eighteenth century.’ I have often said exactly the same thing, but not in the same sense in which he meant it, of course. When I get discouraged and over-tired and weary I also invariably go to the eighteenth century. I have never found George Whitefield to fail me. Go to the eighteenth century! In other words read the stories of the great tides and movements of the Spirit experienced in that century. It is the most exhilarating experience, the finest tonic you will ever know.

For a preacher it is absolutely invaluable; there is nothing to compare with it. The more he learns in this way about the history of the Church the better preacher he will be. At the same time let him, of course, during this training become familiar with the stories of the great men of the past, the great saints and preachers. It will not only act as a wonderful tonic to him in times of depression, it will keep him humble when tempted to pride and a spirit of elation.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers (p. 129).

Where to Begin?

There are a lot of really great books on church history. If you know a good one, please feel free to post it in the comments section.

I think a great place to start, with a book that is accessible, substantial, and enjoyable to read, is From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya by Ruth Tucker.

Also check out this great free online lecture series on church history from David Guzik at Enduring Word.

Another great resource is Christian Theology: An Introduction by Alister McGrath, which doesn’t sound like a church history book by the title, but approaches theology by looking at it through the development of Christian beliefs over the course of history.

We also offer a class at White Fields on church history. Check out our School of Ministry page, and if you’re interested in the class, shoot us an email at the address listed on that page, and we’ll keep you posted on when we will be hosting that class again.

Why Should Christians Visit Israel?

I have been in Israel for the past week with a group from White Fields and Calvary Chapel Brighton.

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We spent the beginning of our trip on the coast, visiting Joppa and Caesarea, both important sites in the Book of Acts, and then headed up to the region of Galilee, where Jesus did the majority of his ministry. Then we drove to Jerusalem, following the Jordan River, and passing places such as Gilgal (see Joshua 4) and the site of Jesus’ baptism and the wilderness where he was tempted directly afterwards.

After seeing some important places in Jerusalem, including the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, the southern steps of the Temple and the Western Wall, we spent a day at the Dead Sea, visiting the place where Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, seeing En Gedi where David hid from Saul in 1 Samuel 24, and going to Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls were found and where John the Baptist was likely connected.

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Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, looking over the Kidron Valley

We will conclude the trip by visiting the Pool of Bethesda (John 5), following the way of the cross to Golgotha and seeing the garden tomb.

The trip has been incredible. I have particularly enjoyed getting the lay of the land and realizing the distances between places, and what they look like. Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and standing where the church was born on Pentecost have been incredible experiences.

Why Should Christians Visit Israel?

Someone jokingly suggested that the benefit of visiting Jerusalem is that you can get the “before and after effect”: when the New Jerusalem comes (see Revelation 21), you will be able to compare it with the Old Jerusalem and see how much it’s improved! (Personally, I hope they clean up the Muslim Quarter a little bit…)

Interestingly, there is a neighborhood in Jerusalem called “New Jerusalem”. I went there, and it was nice, but not “streets of gold” nice. I’m looking forward to the real thing 🙂

All joking aside, there is one key reason why it is beneficial for Christians to visit Israel: Because, out of all world religions, what makes Christianity unique is that our faith is not based on abstract concepts, but on historical events which either happened or they didn’t.

What you learn from a tour of Israel, is that the New Testament accounts stand up to scrutiny. The New Testament talks about real places and real people and real events which had many witnesses, and which have been verified by archaeologists and historians. As Paul the Apostle said: “These things were not done in a corner!” (Acts 26:26)

In fact, because archaeology is a relatively young science, archaeologists are uncovering new findings all the time, and their findings corroborate rather than contradict New Testament accounts.

A visit to Israel is helpful for Christians, because it builds your faith in the historical events upon which Christian faith is based. This has been my first trip to Israel, but I expect it won’t be my last.

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Olive Trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. Some are over 2000 years old. #eyewitnesses

The Christmas Song Which Isn’t Actually About Christmas

One of the most characteristic songs of the Christmas season is Joy to the World. It’s sung by carolers and played in instrumental pieces all over the world, and wherever its famous tune rings, it sets the tone of Christmas.

Except… this quintessential Christmas hymn isn’t actually about Christmas.

67460Written by Isaac Watts and first published in 1719, Joy to the World was a hymn Watts wrote based on Psalm 98, which describes the eternal kingdom which God promised to one day bring about via the Messiah.

Watts, in writing this hymn, considered Psalm 98 along with the New Testament writings about Jesus’ second coming, and wrote this song – which is all about what the world will be like when Jesus comes again.

In this sense, we can say that Joy to the World is an Advent hymn, even if it is not necessarily a Christmas hymn.

Advent is the four weeks leading up until Christmas, during which Christians have historically focused their hearts and mind’s on Jesus’ coming. The word Advent comes from the Latin phrase Adventus Domini, which means: ‘the coming of the Lord.’

During the Advent season we do two things:

  1. We look BACK to Jesus’ first coming and the incarnation (Christmas) – that act in which God took on human flesh in order to save us.
  2. We look FORWARD to Jesus’ second coming, when he will come again according to his promise, to judge the nations and rule over his eternal kingdom.

And so it is in this latter sense that Joy to the World is absolutely an Advent hymn, as it looks forward to the second coming of Christ, when nature will sing and Jesus will rule as King over all.

Another thing you may not know about the hymn Joy to the World is that it was originally set to a different tune than the iconic one that we associate with it today.

Over 100 years after Isaac Watts originally wrote the song, a composer named Lowell Mason, inspired by Handel’s Messiah, wrote the melody which we know today. He titled this musical piece Antioch, but it didn’t have any words to go with it.

For three years Mason searched for the right words to fit his melody, finally settling on Isaac Watts’ lyrics for Joy to the World, and the rest is history.

Joy to the World: An Advent Series

This Advent at White Fields Church in Longmont we are doing a series for the month of December, including Christmas Eve, called Joy to the World, in which we will be looking at how the gospel brings lasting, powerful joy into our lives which overcomes sorrow and cannot be taken away.

Yesterday was our first message in that series, which came from the Gospel of John chapter 16 and was titled “Your Sorrow Will Turn Into Joy.” For the audio of that message, click here.

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We’d love to have you and your friends and family join us at White Fields this Advent and on Christmas Eve. Our services will be at 4:30 & 6:00pm at the St. Vrain Memorial Building at 700 Longs Peak Avenue in Longmont, Colorado. For more information and directions, click here.

 

Was It Necessary for Our Salvation that Jesus be God?

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Advent is the time of year when we think and talk a lot about the incarnation, that event in which God took on human flesh and became one of us in order to save us.

Recently on the Calvary Live call-in show on GraceFM someone called in asking if it is necessary to believe that Jesus was fully God in order to be a Christian. He explained that he believes that Jesus was fully human, but not fully God.

Arianism: A Brief Background

Without knowing the name for it, he described his beliefs, which were basically Arianism: a belief popularized in the early 300’s by a man named Arius, who taught that – contrary to the generally-held Christian belief, Jesus was not fully God in the same way that the Father is God, but that he was a special created being, whom God created in order to bring about salvation for human beings. Arius was afraid that by saying that Jesus was God, Christians were slipping into polytheism, and that in Colossians where it says that Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), it means that Jesus was the first creature whom the uncreated Father created.

Arius’ beliefs were condemned as unbiblical and incorrect at the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council of the church, which gave birth to the Nicene Creed, asserting that Jesus was of one substance (ousia) with the Father and that Jesus is “very God of very God”, leaving no ambiguity whatsoever that Christians unanimously believe that Jesus is in fact God.

(For more on Arius, Nicaea and St. Nicholas of Myra, check out: Taking Back the Story of Saint Nicholas)

But still… why is it important that we believe Jesus is God?

Is it just because that’s who Jesus is and who God has revealed him to be (ontological/revelatory reason)?  – OR – was it actually necessary for our salvation that Jesus be God (soteriological reason)?

Nicaea dealt with the ontological and revelatory side of this question, but my caller on the radio show asked the latter question: is there a soteriological reason why Jesus had to be God in order to save us?

My immediate answer was to point him to Romans 8:1-4, which says that Jesus fulfilled all of God’s righteous requirements on our behalf. In other words: Jesus lived the perfect life that I should have lived, and the good news of the gospel is that he then offers his perfect record to me. Jesus, having been the only human not born of the seed of a man – other than Adam – becomes the “new Adam”, who then fully obeys God whereas Adam disobeyed and sinned (see Romans 5:12-21 or listen to Who is Your Champion?)

He then asked, “Couldn’t God have created a perfect being, without a sin nature, in order to do that work of fulfilling God’s righteous requirements on our behalf in order to save us?”

Here’s Why Jesus Had to Be “Very God of Very God” in Order to Save Us:

The Scots Confession of 1560 addressed this issue directly. The answer it gave is that the full reality of Christ’s deity is essential for salvation because salvation must be an act of God, or else it is not salvation. The deity of Christ tells us that the action of Jesus in the incarnation and on the cross is identical with God’s own action.

The deity of Christ tells us that the action of Jesus in the incarnation and on the cross is identical with God’s own action.

Karl Barth explained that the full deity of Christ is essential because it is only God who can forgive sins. He refers to Mark 2:7, ‘who can forgive sins but God alone?’ It is equally necessary for atonement, Barth pointed out, that the one who makes amends for sin is human. 

Salvation, in other words, is an act of God, but an act that must be done from within humanity – thus Jesus had to be fully God and fully man in order to save us.

The whole of our salvation depends on the fact that it is God in Christ who suffers and bears the sin of the world, and reconciles the world to himself.

T.F. Torrance discusses the terrible implications of denying the full deity of Christ:

If the deity of Christ is denied, then the cross becomes a terrible monstrosity. If Jesus Christ is man only and not also God then we lose faith in God, because how could we believe in a God who allows the best man that ever lived to be put to death on the cross? If you put Jesus Christ as a mere man on the cross and put God in Heaven like some distant god imprisoned in his own lonely abstract deity, such a god is monstrously unconcerned with our life as he does not lift a finger to help Jesus.

The validity of our salvation depends on the fact that he who died on the cross under divine judgement is also God the judge, so that he who forgives is also he who judges.

Thanks be to God for what He has done for us by becoming one of us!

What Sets Christians Apart? – An Ancient Summary

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The Letter to Diognetus dates to sometime in the 2nd Century (approx. 130-180 AD), and is one of the earliest examples of Christian apologetics outside of the Bible. Apologetics is the practice of giving a defense of, or an explanation of, one’s faith for those who have questions or doubts.

The letter, whose author and recipient are unknown, gives us a glimpse into life and thought of early Christians as well as the way that people in their communities viewed them and thought of them.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 5, on the topic of what sets Christians apart from others in society:

Christians are not distinguished from other men by country, language, nor by the customs which they observe. They do not inhabit cities of their own, use a particular way of speaking, nor lead a life marked out by any curiosity. The course of conduct they follow has not been devised by the speculation and deliberation of inquisitive men. The do not, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of merely human doctrines.

Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.

They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers.

They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring.

They share a common table, but not a common bed.

They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives.

They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life.

They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything.

They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead. They are assailed by the Jews as barbarians; they are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to give any reason for their hatred.

This poetic and beautiful description of Christian lifestyle encourages me and challenges me to want myself, my family and my church to be seen as a counter-cultural community  with convictions, who are for the community where we live because God so loved the world and He has poured his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

The rest of the letter is also worth reading, particularly Chapters 6 & 9, the latter of which talks about the doctrine of justification.

You can read the letter in its entirety here.

 

Taking Back the Story of Saint Nicholas

December 6 is the feast day of St. Nicholas. Particularly in Europe, it is celebrated as St. Nicholas Day, and the tradition is to put chocolate and gifts into the children’s shoes for them to find in the morning – a tradition that my wife keeps in our home.

I don’t know if you’ve met them or not, but there are some Christians who think that Santa Claus is evil and that he takes away from the true meaning of Christmas. Not to mention, some would point out, that Santa is nothing more than a misspelling of SATAN, which must be why he goes around in those obnoxious red clothes: because he is from HELL and wants to take you and your kids back there with him!
This of course, is based on a sad lack of knowledge regarding the origin of Santa Claus – the name (in English) being simply a direct derivative of “Saint Nicholas”.

For this reason, some Christians protest anything to do with Santa Claus, and tell their kids that Santa is not real, he is bad, and he takes away from the true meaning of Christmas, which of course is Jesus.

This Christmas season, as we do every year, we will tell our kids the story of the real Saint Nicholas – who was not a mythical fat man in red clothes who rode through the skies on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, but a devout Christian man, a pastor, who was persecuted for his faith, and gained fame because of his generosity to the poor and needy.

We don’t avoid Santa Claus – we don’t even want to. We see it as a great opportunity to teach our kids about a great Christian man who loved Jesus and was generous and kind because of the love of God which was in his heart. THAT is the “Christmas spirit”.

We tell our kids that there are many people in the world who want to follow the example of Saint Nicholas, and that is why they will meet a Santa at their school and at the mall – and some of them will have very fake beards, because none of them are the real Saint Nick. We also teach our kids that, as Christians, we want to be like Saint Nicholas too, and we are going to be generous to the poor and needy too because God loved us so much that he gave us his Son, Jesus, so that we could have eternal life and have a relationship with God.

The Story of the Real Saint Nicholas

The real Saint Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in the village of Patara, in what is now southern Turkey, into a wealthy family. That’s right – no North Pole and reindeer for the real Santa, but palm trees and white sand beaches. His parents died when he was young, and he was taken in and raised by a local priest. Following Jesus’ call to the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:21) to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor”, Nicholas dedicated to use his entire inheritance to assist the sick, needy and suffering.
He became a pastor, and was later made Bishop of Myra. He became famous for his generosity and love for children.

Nicholas suffered persecution and imprisonment for his Christian faith during the Great Persecution (303-311) under Roman emperor Diocletian.
As a bishop, he attended the Council of Nicaea (325), at which he affirmed the doctrine of the deity of Christ against the Arian heresy.
Nicholas died in 343 in Myra. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, the Feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th.

As Christians, we should take back the true story of St. Nicholas

Many stories are told about St. Nicholas’ life and deeds. Perhaps the most famous story is one of a poor man who had three daughters who were of marrying age. Because the man was poor, he was unable to provide a dowry for his daughters, which meant that they would not be able to find a descent husband, and would either be married into further poverty or would have to become slaves. After Nicholas found out about this family’s situation, he visited the family’s house, leaving them 3 anonymous gifts – each time a bag of gold, which was tossed through an open window while the family was sleeping. Legend has it that the gold fell into their shoes, the reason for the tradition in Europe that St. Nicholas leaves gifts in children’s shoes. Nicholas provided for these poor girls to help them break out of the cycle of poverty.

My favorite story about Nicholas is what he did at the the Council of Nicaea, where bishops from all over the world gathered to study the scriptures and address the major doctrinal controversies facing the church. Chief among these was Arianism, propagated by Arius, which denied the full deity of Jesus, saying instead that he was a created being – a view that is carried on today by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The debate got very heated, and based on the study of the scriptures, Arianism was deemed heretical. Nicholas argued from the scriptures for the deity of Christian and against Arianism, and at one point got so upset with something that was said about Jesus from the other side, that he slapped an Arian. That’s my kind of Santa!

Rather than trying to make Christmas Santa-free, let’s take back the true story of Saint Nicholas and take hold of this opportunity to talk about a Christian man who loved Jesus, championed good theology and exemplified Christ through compassion and generosity to the needy.

What Really Happened on October 31, 1517?

Today is Reformation Day, and not just any Reformation Day – it is the 500 year anniversary of the event which is usually considered to mark the official start of the Reformation, and rightly so – because something was done on October 31, 1517 which would snowball into the Reformation and would changed the world forever.

But what was that event?

It is widely held, that this is the day when Martin Luther defiantly nailed his 95 Theses to the wooden door of the castle church in Wittenburg, Germany – his hammer strikes shattering the Holy Roman Empire, and the nail piercing right through the heart of the Pope!

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But on closer examination, it was actually something no less significant, but probably slightly less dramatic!

Here’s what we know:

Luther mailed a letter

The one thing we do know is that on this day, Luther posted a letter to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz. So rather than having the picture in your mind of Luther brazenly and defiantly mailing nailed a list of grievances to the door of the church, picture in your mind Luther sitting at his desk, sealing an envelope and then gently handing a letter to a currier, and giving him some cash to deliver it.

Furthermore, this letter was written – not defiantly and aggressively, but in the most humble, polite and apologetic tone that can be imagined.

You can read the text of that letter here: Luther’s Letter to the Archbishop of Mainz (1517)

Here’s just his introduction:

Spare me, Most Reverend Father in Christ and Most Illustrious Prince, that I, the dregs of humanity, have so much boldness that I have dared to think of a letter to the height of your Sublimity. The Lord Jesus is my witness that, conscious of my smallness and baseness, I have long deferred what I am now shameless enough to do, — moved thereto most of all by the duty of fidelity which I acknowledge that I owe to your most Reverend Fatherhood in Christ. Meanwhile, therefore, may your Highness deign to cast an eye upon one speck of dust, and for the sake of your pontifical clemency to heed my prayer.

The reason Luther wrote to the Archbishop of Mainz is because these indulgences were being sold in his name in the region over which he had oversight and authority, and Luther believed that Archbishop Albrecht was not aware of what was going on, and that it was his duty to inform him. Luther expected that upon hearing about what was happening, Archbishop Albrecht would put an abrupt stop to it. That is, however, not what happened…

We don’t know when the 95 Theses were actually posted

It was Melanchthon, Luther’s follower, who several years later gave the date of October 31, 1517 as the date when the 95 Theses were posted. There’s a good chance that he did that based on knowing that was the day when Luther mailed his letter to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz.

Maybe that is the date, maybe it isn’t.

The 95 Theses probably weren’t posted the way it has been depicted

A hammer and some nails. So dramatic. Such bravado! But in all likelihood, that’s not how they would have been posted.

More likely:

  • They were probably posted with paste, rather than with a hammer and nails. So instead of imagining Luther with his arm cocked back to strike a nail with a hammer, imagine him with a bucket of paste and a brush.
  • They were probably not posted by Luther himself. The door of the church functioned as the church bulletin board, where you would post everything from “I lost my cat Mittens” to “I’m offering guitar lessons for $10/hour”. And it was the job of the church custodian to post things on the door. So try to picture Luther gently handing the church custodian something to post on the door, you know: when he had a moment.
  • They were probably posted on several church doors. The posting was in Latin (not the vernacular German), and it was an invitation to a scholarly debate. Kind of like how you might post to Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to get your message out there, it is likely that a message like this would have been shared on more than one church door (AKA bulletin board).

No matter the particulars about it, we can be sure of one thing: the Reformation was about a return to the Bible, putting the Bible in the hands of the people, and a rediscovery of the core message of the Bible: the gospel!

Happy Reformation Day!

They Sold Themselves Into Slavery

lamb-slainUnitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren) is the formal name of the group often referred to as the Moravian Brethren or Moravian Church. They were one of the very first Protestant groups in the world, originating from Jan Hus and the Bohemian Reformation of the 15th century in what is now the Czech Republic.

Fleeing religious persecution, they fled to Saxony in 1722, and some of them were given permission to settle on the land of a nobleman named Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, a Lutheran Pietist who had a large estate outside of Berthelsdorf.

The Moravian Protestants who settled there, together with Zinzendorf, established a church and named their settlement Herrnhut (The Lord’s Watch). One characteristic of their new community was continuous prayer, done in shifts by different people. This continuous prayer at Herrnhut went on uninterrupted for 100 years.

What is particularly significant about the Moravian church at Herrnhut is that they were a missionary church. They were the first large-scale Protestant missionary group, and they were the pioneers of the modern missionary movement.

During the eighteenth century alone, the Moravians established mission outposts in the Virgin Islands (1732), Greenland (1733), North America (1734), Lapland and South America (1735), South Africa (1736), and Labrador (1771).

Their all-consuming purpose was to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth, a passion that was evident in their proportion of missionaries to laypeople, by some estimates a ratio of 1:60.

Some of the very first Moravian missionaries went to the Caribbean island of St Thomas. They went there in order to minister to the slaves on the island, even selling themselves as slaves in order to get access.

The Moravians had learned that the secret of loving the souls of men was found in loving the Savior of men. On October 8, 1732, a Dutch ship left the Copenhagen harbor bound for the Danish West Indies. On board were the two first Moravian missionaries; John Leonard Dober, a potter, and David Nitschman, a carpenter. Both were skilled speakers and ready to sell themselves into slavery to reach the slaves of the West Indies. As the ship slipped away, they lifted up a cry that would one day become the rallying call for all Moravian missionaries, “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of His suffering.” The Moravian’s passion for souls was surpassed only by their passion for the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. (Source)

I don’t know about you, but it challenges me to see that these people were willing to sell themselves into slavery in order to minister to people they had never met before. That is radical love and radical self-sacrifice. It expresses true belief in the importance and urgency of people coming to know the good news of who Jesus is and what He has done.

This attitude is absolutely counter-cultural, not only in our day, with our extreme focus on self, but also in every generation, since humans are naturally inclined to self-centeredness. This radically different approach to life and others comes from having a Savior and a God who gave up everything to save enemies and rebels, out of love for us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:6-8,10)

To read more about the Moravians and their hearts for prayer and missions, you can check out the entire article this excerpt comes from.

I also recommend this book for those interested in the history of Christian missions: From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions.