Reader Questions: Evidence of Faith

Here on the site there is a feature where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

This question was recently sent in:

Hi Pastor Nick,
Regarding James 2:14: is “works” or “deeds” limited to spiritual disciplines and obedience? Can you expand what an actual “works” is? Based on what I have researched in Strong’s [Greek & Hebrew Lexicon], this word “works” can be likened to evidence. If “works” is limited to spiritual disciplines and obedience, wouldn’t the Pharisee’s have been in the pocket when in comes to saving faith? Can a work, or evidence of saving faith be something like forgiveness, patience, or trusting belief? (John 6:28) I have been listening to you for quite some time online, and so I am thinking it could be “both”. lol. I believe that obedience and spiritual disciplines are VERY important, but they have been an overflow from my friendship with Jesus. They come very naturally to me the more time Jesus and I spend together. I have friends that tend to throw around this verse when they are not witnessing the type of obedience THEY feel should be demonstrated within the church. I tend to be very tolerable when it comes to most topics, but on this issue I get very agitated. I am not sure if it’s because I am denial, or because my friends are, in my opinion, using Scripture to justify moralism. I want to enjoy the book of James, come along side of it, not have any bitterness towards it.

Good question! It seems that James understands “works” to be outward expressions of faith. Clearly this includes acts of obedience, as James describes in chapter 2, using Abraham as an example, but it James also says that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

As Jesus explained, sin includes not just outward actions, but thoughts of the mind and attitudes of the heart. He also taught that to not forgive is a sin. Therefore, to keep oneself unstained from the world includes forgiveness and other attitudes that pertain to holiness. As you rightly mentioned, Jesus stated that the “work” of God is to believe in Jesus whom He sent (John 6:29).

It is possible to do good works apart from faith, but, as John Calvin stated, the motivation for good works in that case will be self-justification or self-glorification. This is what the Pharisees were guilty of, and why Jesus claimed that they were lost in spite of their good works. Calvin argued for “Total Depravity,” which he understood as meaning that apart from Christ, our motives for doing good deeds are skewed, and it is only once the love of God has been poured out in our hearts that we are capable of doing good for truly pure motives.

In his commentary on Romans, Martin Luther compared works to the heat and light that are exuded by fire. You can have light apart from fire, and you can have heat apart from fire, but if you have fire, it will naturally result in heat and light. In the same way, you can have works apart from faith, but faith naturally produces works.

So, the answer to your question is: Both 🙂

Christian Responses to Plagues and Threats in the Past

A virus that affects the vulnerable, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, is a threat that we should take seriously.

As we consider how to respond to COVID-19, it is worth considering some of the responses to plagues and threats by Christians in the past.

The Plague in Rome

Jesse Lusko posted recently:

In 250 AD the plague wiped out 1/3 of the population of Rome. There was hysteria and most Romans abandoned the weak and the sickly and fled. Pagan historians record how Christians instead sacrificially cared for the sick and faced death with joy and confidence. Cyprian writes “In contrast to the prevailing despair, the Christians seemed to carry their dead in triumph.”

The Atomic Age

C. S. Lewis wrote these words in 1948 after the dawn of the atomic age:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Luther and the Plague in Wittenberg

The Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe in the 14th century, but what many people don’t realize is that it continued to pop up at times afterwards for centuries.

In August 1527 the plague showed up in Wittenberg, leading to the closure of the university and other social institutions. People began fleeing the city in panic, and many people did get sick. In fact, the mortality rate of those who contracted the plague was 70%.

Martin Luther and his wife believed that they were called to serve the sick rather than to flee their city. They opened up their home and treated many sick people.

No one should dare leave his neighbor unless there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them. In such cases we must respect the word of Christ, “I was sick and you did not visit me …” [Matt. 25:41–46]. According to this passage we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.

In other words, Martin Luther believed there was an obligation to help those who contracted the plague, but so long as they were helped, it was a matter of conscience if one remained to aide in this great task.

He argued that it would be better for hospitals with trained staff to care for the sick, yet if one were not to be found, “…we must give hospital care and be nurses for one another.

For more on this, see: Martin Luther and His Incredible Response to the Black Plague

Conclusion for Today

As the people of God, it is important that we respond to the current situation in prayer, in faith, in service, and in generosity. We are called to look out for the weak and vulnerable among us, to be the body of Christ in the world, and to speak with a prophetic voice – proclaiming God’s words of life and the message of eternal hope in Jesus.

Halloween, Christians, and What I’ll Be Doing Tonight

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According to the Roman Catholic Church, All Saints Day (Festum Omnium Sanctorum) is celebrated on November 1, and is a day of remembrance for all those “who have obtained salvation.”

It is followed on November 2, by the Day of the Dead (Commemoratio omnium Fidelium Defunctorum), which is the “day of remembrance for those who have died, but have not yet received salvation, but are currently residing in purgatory.”1

October 31 is known as All Hallows Eve, the night before All Hallows (All Saints Day), AKA Halloween.

In the Protestant world, October 31 is Reformation Day, commemorating the day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg castle church in 1517, which is generally acknowledged as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

On further examination, this may not be exactly how it happened — see What Really Happened on October 31, 1517?

How Should Christians Handle Halloween?

One of the big questions I’m often asked this time of year is how Christians should relate to Halloween.

Some common reactions:

  1. Ignore it / Protest it.
    This often manifests in things like refusing to hand out candy to kids who trick or treat, turning off the lights, leaving the house, etc.
  2. Have alternative events for people to attend, such as “Trunk or Treat” in the church parking lot, or a Harvest Festival.
    These are often billed as “safe alternatives to Halloween”, which implies that going trick or treating in your neighborhood is not safe. Whether this concern is for physical safety or spiritual safety is not always clear, but my assumption is that the latter is in mind.
    Besides the fact that teaching children to go approach strangers’ cars to get candy out of their trunk is probably not the safest idea, these events try to create a fun fall atmosphere without the dark/evil underpinnings of Halloween.
    To be clear, while many churches host fall festivals, what I have in mind here is specifically those which are held on October 31 as alternative events that compete with Halloween.
  3. Celebrate it.
    Some churches straight up celebrate Halloween by having parties, etc.

A Missional Approach to Halloween

Here are a few factors to keep in mind about Halloween:

  1. We serve a God who has defeated sin, death and the devil.
    Colossians 2:15, speaking of the forces of evil, says that He (God) disarmed the rulers and authorities (evil or demonic forces) and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (Jesus).
  2. God has left us in this world and given us a mission, to reach people in His name.
    There are certain things which you can only do in this life, which you won’t be able to do in Heaven — particularly: evangelism. Jesus himself is our example in this, that he left the security and sanctity of heaven and entered into our fallen, sinful world, full of evil and darkness, in order to bring salvation to us.
  3. This is the only day of the year, when most of your neighbors are going to come knocking on your door. The only day.
    This is missional gold! How can you use the unique opportunity that this cultural moment presents?

I certainly would agree with those who say that Christian churches should not host Halloween celebrations, however, I would argue that churches ought to encourage Christians to take advantage of this unique cultural moment for the purpose of God’s mission. Hosting alternative events on October 31 that take people out of their neighborhoods, therefore, is, in my opinion, unwise and communicates the wrong message — both to Christians and their neighbors.

What We Will Be Doing This Evening

Tonight, my two year old will be dressing up as a tiger. She told us last night that her name when she wears her costume is “Adventure Tiger”. We will be going out to our neighbors houses, knocking on their doors, chatting with them, getting to know them — and, as we do every year, we will be inviting them join us at to our church.

After that, we will put our fire pit in our driveway, start a fire in it, brew a bunch of coffee, and invite our neighbors to come hang out and chat, meet each other, talk about life, etc. — and we will pray and trust that God will use those conversations and relationships as inroads for us to ultimately share with them the hope that we have in Jesus.

I’ll leave you with this quote from the TroubleFace Mom blog:

If Jesus can go straight to hell, stare death and devil in the face, win and come back alive, can’t we open our doors to the 6 year old in a Batman costume and his shivering mom?

May God help us to make much of Jesus today (and every day)!

Is the Book of Esther Fictional? Does it Really Belong in the Bible?

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Did you know that the Book of Esther never mentions God?

Did you know that whereas almost every Old Testament book is quoted in the New Testament, the Book of Esther is not?

Did you know that the Dead Sea Scrolls contained copies of every Old Testament book except the Book of Esther? (for more on the Dead Sea Scrolls, see: Why the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter for Christians)

The Book of Esther tells the story of a Jewish girl in Persia who becomes a queen and uses her position to save the Jewish people from an attempted genocide. This story is the basis for the Jewish holiday of Purim, a holiday which is not prescribed in the Law of Moses.

These facts, along with the lack of corresponding historical records which corroborate the events talked about in the book have led many people to question not only whether Esther is historical, but whether it belongs in the Bible at all.

Martin Luther, for example, criticized the Book of Esther, accusing it of being too aggressively nationalistic and containing no gospel content.

It isn’t only Christians who are divided over the Book of Esther; Jewish congregations are also divided over whether Esther is a true story or a fable, and whether it belongs in the canon of Scripture (e.g. the Orthodox Union considers it historical and canonical, whereas the Assembly of True Israel considers it neither historical nor canonical).

Let’s consider the relevant questions:

Is Esther Historical?

The Book of Esther focuses on a ten year period (483-473 B.C.) in the Persian Empire during the reign of Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes.

The book contains several historical, chronological and cultural details, which would lead us to believe that it is intended to be read as actual history, rather than as a parable. As in the case of Jonah (see: Is Jonah a Historical Account or an Allegory?), specific historical and geographical details are characteristic of historical narratives and not of allegorical stories (e.g. the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son).

In Esther 1:1 we read an accurate description of the extent of Xerxes’ empire, in 1:2 we read about the location of the seat of the Persian government, and in 1:3-4, we read that in the third year of his reign, Xerxes gave a banquet for all his officials and servants, including the army of Persia and Media. The reason this is important is that it coincides with the accounts of the historian Herodotus which tell us that Xerxes’ second invasion of Greece took place from 480 to 479 B.C., which means that this great gathering mentioned in Esther 1:3-4, which verse 4 says lasted 180 days, is likely describing the preparation for that military invasion of Greece.

According to Herodotus, Xerxes began his return to Persia after his defeat by the Greek navy at Salamis at the end of 480 B.C. The dismissal of Queen Vashti, described in Esther chapter 1, would correspond to this timeline, having happened just before Xerxes departure to Greece, and his encounter with Esther would have happened just after his return. Herodotus claims that Xerxes “sought consolation in his harem after his defeat at Salamis,” which corresponds with what the Book of Esther describes and the time when Esther would have become queen.

Despite the clear historical setting, no outside sources exist which tell us about Esther becoming queen or about the killing of 75,000 Persians. However, it seems that the author’s intent is to relay historical events, and while corroborating sources do not exist, the same is also true of other historical accounts, including those of Herodotus.

Thus, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence which would lead us to believe that Esther is not a historical account, and where historical accounts from this period do exist, they line up with the historical, cultural and geographical details that Esther gives.

Why is Esther in the Bible if it doesn’t mention God?

Esther was recognized as scripture by the Jews before the time of Christ. Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that the Jewish Scriptures were written from the time of Moses “until Artaxerxes,” whom Josephus identifies as the “Ahasuerus” in the book of Esther (Against Apion 1.40-41 & Jewish Antiquities 11.184). Therefore, Josephus understood Esther to be the last book to be written in the Jewish canon.

In the Christian church, Esther was listed among the books of the Old Testament canon at the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397, but was widely accepted by Christians as canonical long before that because of its inclusion in the Jewish Old Testament canon.

Although God is not named in the book, God is not absent from the story. Like in the story of Joseph, Esther is a story which highlights the providence, or the “invisible hand of God” at work in the world, ordering and ordaining events to happen according to His divine plan.

Many scholars believe that the absence of the word “God” from Esther was not a mistake, but was an intentional literary device, aimed at focusing attention on the importance of human initiative and divine providence. The sheer number of “coincidences” in the Book of Esther beg the reader to take notice of the invisible hand of God at work to bring about salvation and justice.

Does Esther contain any gospel content?

Contrary to Martin Luther’s claim that Esther does not contain any gospel content, the story actually contains very many foreshadowings of the salvation which Jesus will bring. Consider, for example the basic elements of the story:

There is an enemy of the people who wants to kill and destroy them. God raises up a savior at just the right time, who uniquely has access to the throne of the great king, who alone can save the people from this impending doom. This savior, at risk to herself, enters into the throne-room of the king and intercedes on behalf of her people, thus securing their salvation. The evil-doers, who throughout the story seemed to act unencumbered, receive the pronouncement of judgment from the king.

Furthermore, we see how the evil Haman desired to be treated as royalty even though he was not. In this we have a contrast with the one who was indeed royalty, but set aside his privileges in order to become a servant so that He might save us (see Philippians 2:3-11 and Matthew 20:28).

Finally, we see in Esther an example of God’s faithfulness to His covenant people.

Conclusion

Because of the scarcity of historical accounts and the lack of thoroughness of those which exist, it would be unwise for us to assume that this story is not historical just because we have not yet found other accounts which corroborate certain aspects of this story. The fact that some parts of the story do have corroborating historical evidence and accounts should give us confidence that Esther is a historical story about actual events – which ultimately are part of the picture and foreshadowing of the Great Savior who has now come: Jesus Christ, who entered into the throne room of God to make intercession for us, that through Him we might be saved from the great enemies of our souls.

Theological Method and the Leaning Tower of Pisa

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Did you know that the Leaning Tower of Pisa is not the only leaning tower in Pisa? There are actually several leaning towers in Pisa as a result of the soft soil in that area.

Did you know that the Leaning Tower of Pisa originally leaned in the other direction? As the builders saw the tower beginning to lean, they built the subsequent levels with one side higher in an attempt to straighten it out by putting more weight on the one side. It ended up being an overcorrection which resulted in the tower leaning in the opposite direction, in which it currently leans.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa as a Picture of the Importance of Theological Method

In my studies at LST I have been studying the topic of theological method. Everyone who thinks about God or the Bible does so methodologically, although they do so with varying degrees of self-awareness and consistency.

There are 5 universally recognized sources of theology: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience and Community.

The way in which a person orders these, the role they believe each of these play, how much importance or credence they give to each one, and how they believe each relates to the other are the questions that go into play in one’s theological method.

Basically: theological method is about the foundations of how we think about God and the Bible.

What we learn from the Leaning Tower of Pisa is that foundations are pretty important. And what happens if you build on a poor foundation, or don’t take care about the foundation you lay – the mistakes the builders in Pisa made – then you will likely end up with a faulty edifice.

Another thing that can happen if you don’t pay attention to foundations is that, like in Pisa, you will end up trying to save your edifice by trying to compensate or over-correct, in which case you may end up leaning in the opposite direction. As Martin Luther said, many of us are like a drunk man trying to ride a horse, who – upon falling off the one side, resolves not to make that mistake again, so he remounts, careful to avoid falling of on the left, and promptly falls off on the right.

A proper theological method will always be driven by Scripture. Reason is a God-given ability which helps us understand His divine revelation, but one which does have its limits in fallen humanity. Tradition is about recognizing the historic interpretations of the Bible by the Body of Christ, such as the Trinity. Again, tradition is not without its errors either, as it has humanity’s fingerprints on it, so this cannot be what drives our theology either. Experience is effective in confirming what we read in Scripture, but what about when we feel something that seems contrary to what the Bible teaches? In these cases, we are to interpret our experiences by the Scriptures, not the other way around. And our community obviously shapes how we read Scripture, but we are to apply the Scriptures to our times and places rather than changing our understandings of Biblical truths based on present cultural mores. Scripture, God’s revelation of Himself, is the proper foundation.

Here is a short video about the Leaning Tower of Pisa:

Vocation and Calling According to the Reformers

One question I am sometimes asked is how a person can know what their “calling” in life is. The Reformers had a lot to say on this topic, which is helpful for us in how we think about “calling” in our lives.

The words “occupation,” “job” and “vocation” are used more or less interchangeably by people today. “Vocational training,” for example, refers to training specific to a particular line of work. However, for the Reformers, the word “vocation” had a distinct meaning.

The word vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, literally: calling.

For the Reformers, to speak of work as vocation, reflected their view that “secular” work is actually a calling from God to do his work in the world and to serve your neighbor.
This was in contrast to the view which was held by the medieval Roman Catholic Church, which made a strong distinction between sacred and secular realms of life, the sacred realm being reserved for things directly related to the church and its work, and the secular realm being that of all non church-related activity. This view, however, is still very common – and the language of “secular” vs “sacred” is still very prominent. Think about all the times you have heard people talk about “secular music” as opposed to “Christian music”, or if you have heard people talk about “secular jobs” as opposed to “ministry jobs.”

To this, Luther wrote:

“What seem to be secular works are actually the praise of God and represent an obedience which is well-pleasing to him.” Housework may have “no obvious appearance of holiness, yet those household chores are to be more valued than all the works of monks and nuns.” (From Luther’s commentary on Genesis)

To the person struggling to find their calling, Luther would say, “How is it possible that you are not called? Are you a husband or a wife? Are you a mother or a father or a child or an employee?” (See Colossians 3:17-24)

The Reformers would have pushed back against the concept of “finding your calling.” Your calling, they would have said, is not something mysterious or difficult to discern. It is the current circumstances of your life. If you are a mother, then your calling is to be a mother. If you are an office worker, then it is to be an office worker. There is a freedom to change what you do, but whatever you do, you are to view it as a calling from God to serve him by serving your neighbor in that context.

What transforms a job into a calling is faith. By faith we see our daily activities as tasks given to us by God to be done for his glory and for the benefit of others.

One bit of feedback I received via social media was from a person who works in a convenience store, and who questioned how selling cigarettes, beer and junk food could possibly be service to God or others. While I’m sure that there is some redeeming value in working in a convenience store, this brings up a great point: if you do not believe that what you are doing is honoring to God or contributing to the flourishing of others, or is actually detrimental to others, then the right thing to do might be to find another job.

This teaching should not be taken to mean that you must not leave your job if, for example, the working climate or culture is unhealthy, or if you would simply like to pursue another career. It simply means that you should view whatever you do as a way to glorify God and do his work in the world by serving others.

For more on this topic see: “We Who Cut Mere Stones…”

We Who Cut Mere Stones…

We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.

This was the creed of some medieval quarry workers, which served to remind them of the bigger picture of what their work was accomplishing. To remember that they were not just cutting rocks, but that they were a vital part of a grand and wonderful project which would serve many people and even generations to come – changed their perspective on their work completely.

I think this is applicable to many of us, in whatever field you may find yourself in, and I think it is particularly applicable to Christian service as well.

Martin Luther used this example: In the Lord’s Payer, Jesus instructed his disciples to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Take a moment though to consider how many people and how many jobs are involved in God answering that one prayer: there is a farmer who plants and waters and harvests the grain. There’s a miller, who grinds up the grain to make flour. There’s a person who produces oil. There’s a person who transports the materials. There’s a baker, who takes the materials and bakes them. There is a grocer who sells the bread. And all of these people, as they do their jobs, are all doing the work of God as they are contributing to the answering of this prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” (For more on this subject, click here to listen to the message: Soli Deo Gloria)

In other words, the Bible teaches that a person’s daily work is not merely something for them to endure, so they can get on to the “good stuff,” but rather a calling and a summons from God to serve others and to do His work in the world, for His glory. Psalm 147 says that “God feeds every living thing.” How does God do that? Is it not through the farmer, the baker, the retailer, the website programmer, the truck driver, the banker, and everyone else involved in the process? Likewise, Psalm 147 says that God is the one who strengthens and protects a city. And yet it is done through the work of lawmakers and police officers.

If a person keeps this perspective, they will have a much higher view of their work than if they were to only see themselves as “mere quarry workers” or “mere shop workers”, “mere teachers,” “mere artists,” etc. If you can see the vital role that your work plays in a bigger picture and in doing the work of God, it will change the way you view your work, and the attitude with which you approach your work.

This is true in Christian service as well. At White Fields, for example, we have people who serve in many different ministries, from prayer to teaching children, to setting up chairs, to running sound. If a person who sets up chairs sees their ministry as “merely” setting up chairs, they might easily become discouraged. It is important that whatever role they play, they see it as the vital and crucial part of the ministry and the Kingdom of God which it truly is.

“We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.”

How can you apply this to your work and/or ministry today to change your perspective on what you do?

The Empty Soul

This past Sunday we finished the 5 Solas series at White Fields with our study of Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone) – click here to listen to that message. Something I learned through preparing for this study, is that for the Reformers, Soli Deo Gloria referred specifically to their view of work: that everything a person does, not just work in and for the Church, can be service to God. They rightly elevated the place of work – and all God-honoring, people-benefiting work – to its biblical place of significance and importance. This doctrine went hand in hand with the teaching of “the priesthood of all believers.”

Here is an excerpt from Luther’s article “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation” on this topic:

It is pure fiction that Pope, bishops, priests, and monks are called the “spiritual estate” while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers are called the “temporal estate.” This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy. Yet no one need be intimidated by it, and that for this reason: all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except that of office. . . . We are all consecrated priests by baptism, as St. Peter says: “You are a royal priesthood and a priestly realm” (1 Pet. 2: 9). The Apocalypse says: “Thou hast made us to be kings and priests by thy blood” (Rev. 5: 9– 10).

As I was preparing for this message last week, I came across something interesting written by Dorothy Sayers, who has written a lot on the topic of the integration of faith and work.

While the biblical view of work is that it is good and part of God’s good design for us as human beings, there are certainly some pitfalls that we can fall into in regard to how we see our work. If we look to our work to “make a name for ourselves” – rather than looking to God to receive our “name” (identity, status, value) from him, then we will inevitably have an unhealthy, and destructive, relationship with our work.

Dorothy Sayers, in Creed or Chaos?, points out that there is a common misunderstanding about the meaning of “sloth” or “slothfulness” – one of the traditional seven deadly sins. Usually, we tend to think of sloth as laziness, but the Greek word Acedia means more of a life which is consumed only with cares about oneself.

Acedia is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing and only remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die. We have known it far too well for many years, the only thing perhaps we have not known about it is it is a mortal sin.

She goes on to say that because a person characterized by acedia only cares about their own needs, interests and comforts, they might not necessarily be lazy at all. They might seem quite driven, in fact. She says though that acedia is “the sin of the empty soul.”

We think that if we are busily rushing about and doing things we cannot be suffering from Sloth. Gluttony offers a world of dancing, dining, sports, and dashing very fast from place to place to gape at beauty spots. Covetousness rakes us out of the bed at an early hour in order that we may put pep and hustle into our business; Envy sets us to gossip and scandals, to writing cantankerous letters to the paper, and to the unearthing of secrets and scavenging of desk bins; Wrath provides the argument that the only fitting activity in a world so full of evil doers and evil demons is to curse loudly and incessantly, while Lust provides that round of dreary promiscuity that passes for bodily vigor. But these are all disguises for the empty heart and the empty brain and the empty soul of Acedia. In the world it calls itself Tolerance but in hell it is called Despair.

Timothy Keller, referring to Sayers’ writings on Acedia in his book Every Good Endeavor, points out that Acedia is really misdirected passion. It is passion that only cares about oneself, but true passion – like the Jesus’ Passion – is passion for the good and well-being of others.

Jesus said: For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:35)

To live for yourself, caring for your own needs, interests and comforts, will leave you with an empty soul – but to give your life in service to God and others in response to the gospel will leave you with a soul that is full to overflowing. Jesus emptied Himself for you, but in doing so, His heart was full! May He empower us to live that way as well!

Martin Luther on Music and Song Writing

One of Luther’s great contributions to Christianity was that he pointed out that much of the common thinking about Christian living and attitudes comes from Plato and Aristotle, rather than from the Bible.

Plato, for example, was a dualist – who viewed the physical world as inherently bad, and the unseen spiritual world as inherently good. Therefore, Plato taught that physical pleasure should be avoided; it was better to live a life of suffering and eschew pleasure in order to be more spiritual. This thinking worked its way into Christianity, to the point where things intended by God to be blessings for our enjoyment were rejected and forbidden. One such area was music.

Augustine of Hippo had written about music in the 5th century, stating that he was “troubled in conscience whenever he caught himself delighting in music.” Luther, who greatly looked up to Augustine, responded by saying: “I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God.” He went on to say, “Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor,” and “next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart.”

“Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor.”

“Next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart.”

Luther is the one who introduced, or at least re-introduced congregational singing to the church. It may be hard to imagine, but until Luther brought singing to the church, there had been no such thing for at least several hundred years, if not more. Furthermore, the fact that there is congregational singing in Catholic churches today is directly because of Luther, and most hymns sung in the Roman Catholic Church today were written by Protestants.

Luther also believed that music was a great tool for teaching spiritual truths. He wanted to put good doctrine into congregational songs to reinforce the teaching that was coming from the pulpit. Luther wrote many hymns himself, but he also reached out to others for help. In a letter to his friend Georg Spalatin in 1523, Luther wrote:

Our plan is to follow the example of the prophets and the ancient fathers of the church and to compose songs for the people in the vernacular, that is: spiritual songs so the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music. Therefore we are searching everywhere for poets. Since you are endowed with a wealth of knowledge and elegance in the German language, and since you have polished it through much use, I ask you to work with us in this project.

I would like you to avoid any new words or the language used at court. In order to be understood by the people, only the simplest and most common words should be used for singing; at the same time, however, they should be pure and apt; and further, the sense should be clear and as close as possible to the [Bible]. You need a free hand here; maintain the sense, but don’t cling to the words; [rather] translate them with other appropriate words.

Furthermore, unlike Zwingli in Zürich, who forbade the use of musical instruments, Luther encouraged the use of musical instruments in church.

Martin Luther not only introduced music back into the church, but he defined the parameters of what makes for good Christian church music.

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!