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.

Happy Reformation Day!

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499 years ago today, Martin Luther – a German professor of theology, priest and monk, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints Church (ironically on the eve of All Saints Day – AKA: Halloween) in Wittenburg, Germany. This act is considered the spark which ignited the Protestant Reformation.

If you own a Bible in your own language, that you can read any time you want, you have the Reformers to thank for that. It was not always that way; people fought for these things.

Before Luther, there were others who sought to bring reform to the church. John Wycliffe (1331-1384) published the first English translation of the Bible. Jan Hus (1369-1415) started a movement of the prolific teaching of the Bible to the common people, and was ultimately executed in Prague. Peter Waldo (1140-1218) commissioned a translation of the New Testament into the local vernacular of southern France. Each of these people were persecuted for trying to put the Scriptures into the hands of the common people.

In 1516, John Tetzel was sent to Germany to raise money for the building of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. His means of raising money was the sale of plenary indulgences, which promised the release of a person from purgatory, based on their purchase.

The sale of plenary indulgences had been one of Jan Hus’ major contentions with the medieval Catholic Church, and Luther took issue with it as well: the idea that God’s favor or blessings could somehow be earned, not to mention purchased, was something he whole-heartedly rejected. Furthermore, the concept of purgatory is in conflict with the Biblical teaching of the sufficient atonement of Christ on the cross.

Luther had long struggled with feelings of condemnation and never being able to measure up, but had experienced an epiphany when he read Habakkuk 2:4: Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; But the righteous will live by his faith.

This led Luther to the other places in the Bible where this phrase is repeated: in Romans 1:17, in Galatians 3:11, in Hebrews 10:38 – where the message is clear: It is not by our own works that we are justified before God, but it is God who justifies us as an unearned gift of His grace, and we receive that justification by FAITH. That is how Abraham became righteous (Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness – Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3 & 22), and that is how we receive God’s righteous, which he has provided for us in Christ!

Luther’s re-discovery of this Biblical truth came through his reading of the Scriptures. He became convinced that everyone needed to be able to read the Scriptures for themselves, and that the practice of the church at that time, of keeping the Scriptures out of the hands of the common people, was something that needed to end. He believed that people had the capacity and the right to read and interpret the Holy Scriptures for themselves. Luther himself, in the pursuant years, translated the Bible into German, a translation which is widely used to this day.

Luther came to believe that the Scriptures alone are the source of theology, that justification is by Christ alone through faith alone.

The 5 “solas” (alone statements) of the Reformation are:

  • Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone)
    • The Bible is the only source of Christian doctrine
  • Sola Fide (by faith alone)
    • Justification is received by faith alone
  • Sola Gratia (by grace alone)
    • Justification is by God’s grace alone
  • Sola Christus (through Christ alone)
  • Soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone)

This October 31st, I hope you’ll remember that there is something much better than “fun size” candy bars: having God’s Word available to you, for you to read and understand yourself.

After all – what is “fun” about “fun size”?  There’s nothing fun about tiny candy bars. They should be called “sad size”…

In April 1521, Luther was brought before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, at which Luther was commanded to recant his teachings. Luther thought he would have a chance to defend his ideas. Charles would only accept an absolute recantation. Luther refused to do so.

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Here is a portion of Luther’s statement at the Diet of Worms:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason – for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves – I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me.”

If the Reformers could speak to us today, they would tell us this: the Reformation never ends. It is a continual movement of returning to the Scriptures and examining our lives and our practices in light of them.

Happy Reformation Day!

Gender Roles in Marriage and Perichoresis: the Dance of the Trinity

Yesterday at White Fields I taught on Colossians 3:12-25. The first part of that text is the one I usually use when I officiate weddings. The title of my message was “Gospel Reenactment” (audio of that message can be listened to here).

Included in this section is a verse which can be controversial for some people: Wives submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord.  The idea of defined gender roles in marriage is not the most popular subject in our day and age, where more and more often, gender is considered a social construct and something which is fluid rather than fixed. Furthermore, it is no secret that some who have held to biblically defined gender roles in marriage have at times used them as an excuse to act tyrannically or even cruelly towards their spouse.

However, what I discovered in studying this passage in Colossians, is that it gives a picture of marriage as a reenactment of the Gospel (who Jesus is and what He did for us), particularly as regards the nature of God: One God, creator of Heaven and Earth, of all things seen and unseen, who eternally exists in 3 co-equal persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The term Son does not speak of origin but of rank: the Son willingly submitted Himself to the leadership of the Father, even though they are eternally co-equal and one. This is the model of what marriage is: two become one, but in that one, they take on different, complementary roles for the sake of a mission.

This is something which the church fathers, such as Gregory of Nazianzus and John of Damascus, and more recently Jürgen Moltmann and Miroslav Wolf, have referred to as ‘The Dance of the Trinity’ – or ‘Perichoresis’ in Greek. It refers to the dynamic relationship which exists between the 3 persons of the Trinity:

The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, the Spirit glorifies the Son and the Son glorifies the Father. The Father sends the Son and the Son obeys the Father. The Son sends the Spirit, and the Spirit and the Son together bring glory to the Father. The Spirit exalts the Son, the Son exalts the Father. The Father exalts the Son and glorifies the Son.

It’s a harmonious set of relationship in which there is mutual giving and receiving. This relationship is called love, and it’s what the Trinity is all about. The perichoresis is the dance of love.  – Jonathan Marlowe

The relationships between the three Persons of the Trinity — “dynamic, interactive, loving, serving” — form the model for our human dance. – Michael Spencer

In their book The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller write about gender roles. This is one of the best books I have read on marriage, and I would recommend it highly. Here are some things that Kathy in particular had to say on the topic of gender roles:

Every cell in our body is stamped XX or XY. This means I cannot understand myself if I try to ignore the way God designed me or if I despise the gifts he may have given me to help me fulfill my calling. If the postmodern to view that gender is wholly a “social construct” were true, then we could follow whatever path seems good to us. If our gender is at the heart of our nature, however, we risk losing a key part of ourselves if we abandon our distinctive male and female roles.

[Philippians 2] is one of the primary places where the “dance of the Trinity” becomes visible. The Son defers to his father, taking the subordinate role. The Father accepts the gift, but then exalts the Sons to the highest place. Each wishes to please the other; each wishes to exalt the other. Love and honor are given, accepted, and given again. There is no inequality of ability or dignity.

The Son’s role shows not his weakness but his greatness.

[In God’s Kingdom, leaders] are called to be a servant-leaders. In the dance of the Trinity, the greatest is the one who is most self-effacing, most sacrificial, most devoted to the good of the other. Jesus redefined – or, more truly, defined properly – headship and authority, taking the toxicity of it away or, at least for those who live by his definition rather than by the world’s understanding.

Jesus as a master made himself into a servant who has washed his disciples’ feet, thus demonstrating in the most dramatic way that authority and leadership mean that you become the servant, you die to self in order to love and serve the Other. Jesus redefined authority as servant-authority.

In Jesus we see all the authoritarianism of authority laid to rest, and all the humility of submission glorified. Rather than demeaning Christ, his submission led to his ultimate glorification, where God “exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.”

Both men and women get to “play the Jesus role” in marriage – Jesus in his sacrificial authority, Jesus in his sacrificial submission.

– The Meaning of Marriage, pp. 194-201

Part of the redemption that we have in Jesus is an invitation into the Perichoresis – the ‘dance of the Trinity’ – and in addition to our relationship with God, this serves as a model and a motivation for our relationships in marriage, work and beyond.

The Etymology of God

I enjoy linguistics; I consider it a hobby. I speak only 2 languages fluently, and several others to varying degrees. Whereas some people find language learning tedious, I find it invigorating.

One of the areas of linguistics I enjoy most is etymology: the study of the origin of words.

Etymology gives you a window into the thinking of a culture or a people group.

For example: I have been teaching a church history class at White Fields, and last week we were talking about how Constantine, before his conversion to Christianity, had monotheistic leanings and had declared “the venerable day of the Sun” (Sunday) to be a free day, on which no one was to work. Until that time, Sunday had been a work day, and Christians gathered for worship and the taking of the sacrament (communion) before work and then again after work, in the evening. More on that here.

Someone in the class said: Oh, so that’s why it’s called SUNday?  Yes, and in English that’s why it’s called Monday (Moon) and Saturday (Saturn).

In fact, it is interesting to consider the etymology of the names of the week in other languages. In Russian, Sunday is called: Воскресенье, which is a close derivative of the word воскрешение, which means “Resurrection”.

In Hungarian, it’s not quite as cool: Sunday is “Vasárnap” – which no doubt derives from “vásár-nap”: “Market Day”… Definitely not as cool (or as Christian) as “Resurrection”. While Romans were all about honoring the Sun, Hungarians were all about shopping…

But if etymology gives insight into the way a culture thinks, then what can we learn from the etymology of “God”?

The English word God, does not derive from the word “good”, as one might think, but comes from the Germanic Gott, which derives from the Gothic Gheu, which is thought to derive from the Sanskrit: Hu – meaning: “the one who is invoked” or “the one who is sacrificed to.”  It refers to the supreme being.

The Latin Deus, along with the related Greek Theos comes from the Indo-Iranian Deva/Sanskrit Dyaus, which are related to the terms for “to give light”, “to implore”. It is from these roots that the Spanish Dios comes.

In Hungarian, the word for God is Isten.  I’ve been told that this modern form derives from:  Ős-tény – literally: “The ancient truth (or: ancient fact)”

One of the very interesting things to read about is how different missionaries tried to find a given culture’s word for God, sometimes with great success and sometimes without. For example, in Korea, Catholic missionaries believed that the Koreans had no good word for God – as in, the Supreme Being of the universe – so they used the Chinese word for God, a word which was foreign to the Koreans, and which caused the Koreans to think of Christianity as a foreign religion. It was only when Protestant Presbyterian missionaries came to Korea, that they got to know the Korean culture and language well enough to realize that they did in fact have a word (and therein a concept) for the God of the Bible: the creator and sustainer of all things, the righteous judge of all the Earth – 하나님 (Hananim).

It is as Paul the Apostle said: God has not left himself without witness in any culture, or amongst any group of people. (Acts 14:17)  Etymology gives us a window into this truth.

 

Why Studying Church History is Important

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Something we’ve started recently at White Fields is a series of classes we’re calling: School of Ministry and Discipleship.

The idea is that have started offering a series of 5-week Christian education classes on various topics in a classroom setting. I like to think of it as Bible college for people who don’t have time to go to Bible college.

We ran a test of this last spring, learned a few things, and are ready to start again with our first 3 classes: Christianity 101 and Church History: Parts 1 & 2.

Interestingly, the Gospel Coalition just put out an article this week titled: The Role of History in Reclaiming the Christian Mind.

Here’s an excerpt:

“One of the besetting sins of evangelicalism is a mostly ahistorical approach to theology and praxis. As evangelicals, we appeal to the supreme authority of Scripture, and rightly so. But we don’t read our Bibles in a vacuum.”

Understanding God’s working in and through the church over the past 2000 years, as well as how Christianity developed in doctrine and practice is important for us as Christians today. For me, studying Christian History was one of the most enriching and enlightening parts of going to seminary, and I hope to share some of that with other people.

If you live near Longmont and would be interested in attending these free classes, they will be held on Sundays at noon starting April 3.

For more information or to sign up, click HERE.

 

The History of Lent & the Lost Celebration

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I grew up going to a Lutheran school until 8th grade, and one of the highlights of the year was Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent:  the 40 days leading up to Easter, which is a time of fasting and self-denial in preparation for Easter. On Ash Wednesday we would have chapel service and would get to walk to the front of the church and have ash put on our foreheads in the shape of a cross. Today as I was out around town, I noticed people with these ash crosses on their heads.

Lent is a tradition which predates all Christian denominations, but today is practiced mainly by Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian, and Orthodox Christians. However, Lent is more and more popular among evangelical Protestants, some of whom long for connection to the rich history of Christian tradition. I ran across a plethora of articles today from sources like Relevant and Christianity Today recommending that evangelicals would benefit from the practice of Lent. I tend to be inclined this way myself: to appreciate and want to be connected to Christianity’s rich traditions and to embrace the meaningful symbolism.

However, I have changed my thinking in recent years about Lent in particular. In seminary I took a course about the history and development of Christian worship. Here’s what I discovered about the development of Lent:

In the earliest days of Christianity, the time recorded in the Book of Acts, it is clear that new converts to Christianity first came to faith and then were baptized. As time went on, Christians began to feel that it was important that not only faith precede baptism, but instruction also. So they began to require believers to go through a period of instruction in Christian doctrines (catechism) before they could be baptized.

Several early Christian writings indicate that new believers would be baptized on Easter, which from the earliest days of Christianity was the chief Christian celebration. One of these writings that mentions baptisms of new believers being practiced only on Easter is from Tertullian, who argues that baptism need not only be practiced on Easter.

The number 40 held special significance for the early Christians because of the significance of the number 40 in the Hebrew scriptures, and so the 40 days leading up to Easter were the days of preparation, instruction and consecration for those who were getting ready to be baptized on Easter.

Easter itself, for the first 400 years of the church, was a feast that did not last only one day, but which began on Easter Sunday and lasted for 40 days. During that 40 days, people were forbidden from fasting, as well as from kneeling when they prayed, as kneeling is a posture of contrition, and these 40 days were set aside for the express purpose of celebrating the new life, the forgiveness and the redemption that we have because Jesus rose from the grave. It was a 40 day season of joy.

But here’s what changed: in the 4th Century, paedobaptism (child or infant baptism) became the norm. Paedobaptism was already a practice of some churches before that; Tertullian, in his On Baptism (circa 200), mentions that some churches practiced it and others did not, but that it was becoming increasingly popular in his time.

The reasons for the rise of paedobaptism were:

  1. Questions about how those who were born into and raised in Christianity should be initiated into the faith, and how this relates to the Old Testament model of a people in covenant with God.
  2. The emergence of Christendom as Christianity had become the official and dominant religion of the Roman Empire, so to be a citizen of the Empire was equated with being “Christian” and it was presumed that everyone who was a citizen of the empire was a Christian.  This view prevailed throughout the medieval period in Europe and was perpetuated by the magisterial Reformers.
    (I have written more on the subject of Christendom here)
  3. The formulation of the doctrine of ‘original sin’ by Augustine of Hippo, which gave many people a rationale for baptizing infants. The reasoning was that since the Nicene Creed declares that there is ‘one baptism for the forgiveness of sins’, that infant baptism remitted original sin (something Augustine did not teach, but which led to parents wanting to have their babies baptized as soon after birth as possible). Thomas Aquinas also taught that baptism removed the guilt of original sin; however, this teaching was rejected by Luther and other Reformers and is not held by all modern adherents of paedobaptism.

But here’s the issue that paedobaptism brought up in the church: If you baptize babies, then you can’t instruct them before you baptize them, because they’re infants… So what do you do with the 40 day period of consecration and preparation leading up to Easter? Hmm…
Here’s what they did: they decided to make this a time of all believers consecrating themselves to God in preparation for Easter, and catechism was moved to adolescence and paired with a confirmation of one’s faith/baptism.

So, here’s what you had at that point:  40 days of consecration to God before Easter – EASTER – 40 days of celebration of salvation and new life after Easter.

But then, guess what happened with time: We kept one 40 day observance and dropped the other. And which one did we choose? Not the celebration, but the consecration… and over time that consecration became more and more dour and focused on self-denial, penance and contrition.

James White writes:

It is perplexing why Christians have forsaken the season of rejoicing in exchange for the season of penance.

Particularly during the medieval period (and vestiges of this remain in our day in some places and to some degree) some Christians became more obsessed with the process of Jesus’ death – his “passion” – than with the purpose of his death.

Taking this into consideration, I am less inclined to celebrate Lent. I believe that I should consecrate myself to God every day. Romans 12:1 says – I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 

However, I do believe that the discipline of self-denial is healthy and very much needed for some people, and that setting apart a dedicated time of consecration is both biblical and good.

In the end it gets down to WHY you are practicing Lent. If it is a spiritual discipline through which you draw nearer to God by purposefully setting aside something in order to consecrate yourself in an amplified way for a particular time – then I think that is wonderful and would recommend that you do it.

No matter what – whether you practice it or not – please remember the history, and along with your 40 days of consecration, I encourage you to practice 40 days of dedicated rejoicing in the salvation and new life that Jesus made available to you.

Celebrating what He did for you should take precedence over focusing on what you do for Him.

 

Advent Meditations: 12 – The Date and Details of Christmas

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The first Christmas sermon I ever preached was on the topic of whether Jesus was really born on December 25th. My point was that most scholars believe was that Jesus was not born on December 25th, but probably in September, because the shepherds were sleeping outside with their flocks at night, which is not something that would be done in the winter months when it was colder at night. Furthermore, this view is based on the tracking of the stars, which some say would place the North Star in the right place in the sky sometime in autumn.

The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was in 336AD, during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Roman Emperor). A few years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th December.

Prior to 336AD, December 25th was when pagans celebrated the winter solstice. Constantine took an existing holiday and changed the focus of it and the substance of what was being celebrated. It is remarkable that in the first few hundred years of the church, the main Christian holiday was Easter, when they celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christmas only began to be celebrated much later on.

However, while that is all interesting information, I somewhat regret having spent the time given me during my first Christmas sermon on this topic. Having had the attention of people on that day, I wish I would not have focused on dates and details, but on the substance of what Christmas is about.

You see – it doesn’t really matter what day we celebrate the birth of Jesus, what matters is the fact of the incarnation. If December 25th is the day that our culture has chosen to celebrate that, then great! I’m happy to celebrate it then or any other time! But if our whole culture is open to talking about it at this time, then what a great opportunity that is to talk about the gospel and the meaning of the incarnation on a day when more people will set foot inside a church than any other day of the year. What matters is not when the incarnation happened, but that it did indeed happen!

There are some people who have a “mentality for the marginal” – a “preoccupation with the peripheral”. They focus all of their time and attention to theories about dates and details, the movement of stars and how exactly the star did lead the magi, or how exactly did the Red Sea split, or how did Jonah survive in the belly of the fish – they are concerned with gathering information on and debating peripheral matters of theology, which are tentative and have very little spiritual significance.

It is not to say that such interests are bad, except when this preoccupation with the peripheral takes one away from a focus on the great central things of the gospel – the holiness of God, the terribleness of sin, the helplessness of man and the love of God; the death of Christ, the resurrection from the dead, justification by faith, the work of the Holy Spirit and the return of Christ and the final judgment. Some people are easily sidetracked from these things by the latest speculations and theories and tidbits regarding things which have little ultimate significance.

What is wonderful about the Christmas story – the story of the incarnation – is that if you will allow it to, it will refocus you onto that which is important. It will help you keep the main things the main things. It re-centers us, by reminding us of the big picture: that the world is under the dark cloud of sin and death, but God, in his love, has sent us a savior: Christ the Lord, who is none other than God himself come to us in  human flesh. And if anyone puts their faith in Him, they will not be put to shame, but they will be saved, justified, forgiven and redeemed, and have life everlasting.

 

Frontier Church and Beyond

I do my seminary studies in England, and I always find it interesting to read about American culture, politics, etc. from a British perspective.

This semester I’m taking a class on History of Christian Worship, and one part of this describes the development of different ways of “shaping Christian time” in worship.

Here’s an excerpt from my reading about the “Frontier Church model”:

Frontier or Revivalist Groups

This term is used by White to designate a type of Protestant worship widely recognised in North America which spread to the UK. As already indicated, it is a nineteenth-century form of the Service of the Word in which worship became simply equated with evangelism. Its roots were Puritan, Reformed and Methodist, and it was born out of a prevailing spirit of its Victorian times – didactic, stripped-down commonsensical. To meet the challenge of how to mediate Christian faith to the scattered and independent people moving west across the North American continent, evangelists developed a pragmatic, free-style, anti-tradition form. This kind of worship had one purpose and that was to make converts.

The service had a three-part form:

  • 􏰂the warm-up or preliminaries – easy-to-sing emotional hymns;
  • 􏰂 the Word – the sermon, preparing for;
  • 􏰂 the harvest – altar call, an emotional appeal for conversion.

Frontier-type worship is evident in evangelistic ‘crusades’ and in many independent church services and Pentecostal meetings.

Sound familiar?  This gives interesting perspective to the “common” way of doing church in America today.  I know that this is the MO of many mega-churches. However, the question is begged: where is the discipleship? I know of large churches which have no strategy for discipleship beyond their Sunday morning preaching times, which are focused on proclamation of the Gospel with a focus on evangelism.

On the other side of the spectrum, I was speaking this weekend with friends in Canada who told me that the services in their church are focused wholly on the people of God and are not at all evangelistic (something they regretted to admit).

This seems to be one of the big questions: Who and what is the church service designed for? Discipling believers, or preaching to unbelievers for conversion?  But what if everyone is converted already?  Do you just keep preaching the same invitation to receive salvation to the already saved, because there just might be 1 or 2 unsaved people?  Or is it then always an invitation to “re-committ”?  Where does the instruction of believers come in?  Is that really “church”?  BUT – if you never preach and invite people to respond to the call of the Gospel to commit themselves to following Jesus, then what happens when new people come? Is your service simply not for them?

Clearly every church is trying to find this balance. I find that teaching through the Bible systematically, like we do at White Fields, is one of the most effective ways of both instructing believers and giving calls to action and to repentance. I also believe that having Christian instruction outside of the Sunday morning gatherings is an important way of doing this too. One of the things I’d like to start at White Fields is something along this line, because after all, we are called to not only make converts unto Jesus Christ, but disciples of Jesus Christ, teaching them to observe all that He commanded us (Matthew 28:20).