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Two Birthdays, Two Symbols of Courage

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Today is November 10th, and a significant day if you enjoy freedom and appreciate courage. There are two birthdays worth remembering today. The United States Marine Corps, long admired as a symbol of elite military strength. And the man who ignited the Protestant Reformation, the 500th anniversary of which was just recently celebrated -- Martin Luther.

The United States Marine Corps was formed by Captain Samuel Nicholas by a resolution of the Second Continental Congress, on November 10, 1775. For almost 250 years, the Marines have stood ready to fight for our country. Honor, courage, and commitment are their tenets. Amphibious assault, air-ground, expeditionary -- they do it all -- and do it as the smallest of the armed forces under the Department of Defense. As of June, 2011, there were less than 150,000 active duty Marines. As a branch of the armed forces in America, they symbolize protection from tyranny, freedom for the oppressed, and courage in the face of adversity. The Marine Corps slogan is semper fidelis, which is Latin for “always faithful.” But there is another birthday today that produced for us a man who pointed to the One who defines "always faithful."

Martin Luther was also born on this day in 1483. His mining father wanted more for his son, and enrolled Martin in school to become a lawyer. But in a moment of desperation, Martin made a vow to God that he would become a monk if his life was spared. So entering an Augustinian monastery, Martin Luther was put on a path that would ultimately revolutionize the Christian faith and the history of Europe and the Catholic Church.

As time went on, Luther became increasingly convinced of the abuses of the church and the Pope. That, coupled with his own wrestling with assurance of salvation, led him back to the doctrine of justification by grace through faith as he studied through the book of Romans. With his famous 95 Theses posted to the Castle Church door on October 31, 1517, Luther’s honor, courage, and commitment to stand up to the Pope and the Catholic Church unintentionally ignited the Protestant Reformation. During this period of the church’s history, the Bible was recovered as the sole authority for life and faith, as the “Five Solas” came to represent the Reformers' commitments: Solus ChristusSola GratiaSola FideSoli Deo Gloria, and Sola Scriptura. In that order these Latin phrases mean “Christ Alone,” “Grace Alone,” “Faith Alone,” “The Glory of God Alone,” and “Scripture Alone.”

While Luther was fighting a different kind of oppression and abuse than the Marines have, they both stood/stand for freedom -- one national and the other religious. Today, be proud of your country and those who’ve served. Thank the Lord that he -- in his grace -- has placed you under the protection of a strong armed force such as the United States Marines (and all other branches of the military) to protect your right to freely worship.

But most importantly, also be thankful that God has had men and women throughout the ages -- like Martin Luther -- willing to fight for truth in Scripture, willing to stand up to tyranny and abuse, and willing to seek the Lord for reform, freedom, and purity in the church.

Offering Money Is No Help; People Need Cash Instead

It seems like we're always hearing about Christianity's decline. About how fewer and fewer people are attending church or doing whatever a particular researcher needs them to do in order to be considered "Christians." At the same time, we're told that people are increasingly calling themselves "spiritual." They're spiritual, but not religious. They are the people who "seem to want some connection to the divine, but...don't feel affiliated with traditional religion." They're not part of the Christian religion, and they're not part of another religion--but they are something.

And most often what they are, is simply turned off by the word religion. Their beliefs and spiritual practices or habits probably square pretty closely with one of the hundreds(?) of religious sects in the world--even if they don't fit nicely into one of the big ones. But they're "not religious," and that's too bad because contrary to a very popular belief today--not all religion is bad. Sure, there are harmful religions (and I believe all others besides Christianity are eternally harmful for the soul), but in terms of whether they help or hurt society, there are religions that have had positive effects--and the Christian religion is leading the pack.

What was born out of this perfect man’s perfect message is called the Christian religion.

Though, Christianity is not perfect. Admittedly, there are dark spots and blemishes on its history--but its founder was perfect--still is. And the good news he proclaimed was perfect. So why don't I join in on the "spiritual, but not religious" zeitgeist--or to sound even cooler, "Give me Jesus, but not religion"? Simple. Because what was born out of this perfect man's perfect message is called the Christian religion.

In other words, religion is not the answer, but the answer is contained within a religion. 

Sound like we're going in circles? We sort of are, because you can't very easily separate Christ from Christianity. And it never gets any less confusing, no matter how spiritual it makes you sound. Suppose a person begs you to help them with a dire financial need. And suppose your answer is, "You don't need money to meet your need; what you need is some cash."

Now they also need to get away from you and your crazy talk.

But even though historically Christianity is not a perfect religion, it does contain the gospel. The gospel is the basis for this religion. Within the Christian religion is the answer to life's biggest need--redemption and a restored communion with God. And as the gospel takes root in a life, the outworking looks like the Christian religion: going to church to fellowship and be in relationship with your brothers and sisters, doing ministry to equip the saints for the work of evangelism, baptizing new believers, sharing in communion together as you remember the incarnation and death of Jesus, worshiping together who God is and celebrating what he's done. Praying, studying, solitude, fasting, giving some of your income, doing service.

All religion. All done because of Jesus.

And as the gospel takes root in a life, the outworking looks like the Christian religion: fellowship, relationship, ministry, evangelism, baptism, communion, prayer, fasting, service.

And that's why I don't want Jesus without religion. I want Jesus, but I also want his bride, the Church. I want the religion that bears his name and all the good works done by its adherents throughout history and all over the world. Everywhere the Christian religion has spread, the culture has been affected for good. Give me that religion! Give me a religion that:

  • Fights for human life because murder is a sin, and every person is known by God from the womb. (Psalm 139.13) So the pro-life movement is largely driven by the Christian religion, which is no surprise; Christians have been instructing against infanticide (a common practice) since as early as the first or second century.*
  • Dignifies women because--although created with complementary roles--every person is created equally in the image of God. (Genesis 1.26) So while many cultures even to this day treat women as inferior, "Christianized" or western cultures no longer see a woman as a second-class person or the property of her husband.*
  • Cares for the poor, the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow--in other words, those who are most vulnerable--because God is compassionate. (Jeremiah 22.3) So the Christian religion helped end slavery, and records some of the earliest records of organized charity.*
  • Desires and promotes literacy and education because God revealed himself in a book, and we want people to have access to it. (2 Timothy 3.16-17) So Christian missionaries are responsible for many foreign (tribal) languages being first written down, and in colonial America 122 of the first 123 colleges beginning as Christian institutions.*
  • Encourages creativity, beauty, and the exercise of our gifts because we imitate our God who creates beautifully. (Genesis 1.1-27) So the Christian religion includes in its history authors such as Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky, composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel, and European cathedrals which showcase some of the most incredible architecture in the world.*

The list could go on. Hospitals and healthcare have been heavily influenced by the Christian religion as people sought to alleviate suffering and bring healing. American government and some of our oft-taken-for-granted freedoms are born out of Christian belief. Science--yes, even science--doesn't escape Christian influence because of men like Blaise Pascal, Isaac Newton, and Louis Pasteur. And on and on we could go.

Everywhere the Christian religion has spread, the culture has been affected for good.

"But if you read the gospels, Jesus didn't tell us to start a religion." No, no he didn't. But that's what his followers did. Keep reading. Read the Acts of the Apostles. Read Paul's letters. Read Peter's letters. They started churches, and helped a rapidly growing number of Christ-followers to organize themselves and learn how to conduct themselves and their gatherings. They wrote letters that we've canonized because we believe they are just as inspired by the Holy Spirit as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

So cut religion a little slack. Sure, plenty of people have done it wrong over the years. I have. But lots of people have done it right. Lots of people are doing it right. Yes, start with Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Lead with the gospel; that's the first answer. But then let the gospel do its work.

The religion that follows it can be a pretty beautiful thing.

*For more on Christianity's positive effects on history and culture, go here.

Happy St. Nicholas Day!

December 6th. St. Nicholas Day. The day that people all over the world are remembering the death and celebrating the life of Saint Nicholas.

Getting to the root of questions like “Who is Santa” and “Was he a real person” lead us back in time to the village of Patara, on the southern coast of modern-day Turkey. Nicholas was born around 270 AD to wealthy, yet devoutly Christian parents who taught him to revere and obey the teachings of Jesus. While still young, Nicholas lost his parents to an epidemic and received his inheritance -- an inheritance that he spent living out Jesus’s command to “sell what you have and give to the poor” (Matt. 19.21).

Nicholas was appointed Bishop of Myra (also located in modern-day Turkey), and his reputation for being generous spread. He became known for his concern and generosity toward the needy, and also for his love of children. Then under Diocletian, one of the most ruthless of the Roman emperors, Nicholas was exiled and imprisoned for his faith. However, after his release he attended the Council of Nicaea in 325, where he vehemently argued for the doctrine of the Trinity -- so vehemently that he slapped (some people say punched) Arius for denying the divinity of the Son! Almost twenty years later in 343 AD, Bishop Nicholas died. Now the day of his death, December 6th, is celebrated around the world as St. Nicholas Day -- a day of remembering the generous saint by giving gifts and feasting.

There are many extraordinary stories of the bishop helping the needy, including one about a poor father of three daughters who had no dowry (payment for marriage) to offer potential husbands. With nothing to offer, the daughters would likely be sold into slavery. But three different times a bag of gold appeared at the home. Tossed through the window, legend has the bags of gold landing in shoes set before the fire to dry. And unknowingly today, we still practice a custom born out of this legend -- hanging stockings on the fireplace for Saint Nicholas to fill.

St. Nicholas Day is celebrated all over the world in different ways -- in many places, its the primary gift-giving day, not Christmas. Parents, don’t waste this opportunity to start a new tradition in your family. Tell your children about the real Saint Nicholas. Let his example help you teach about Jesus’s commands to care for the poor and needy. Be creative! It doesn’t have to replace Christmas, but do something special to remember Nicholas and his generosity. (Parents, its also a great way to remind ourselves a few things about the Christmas season and the Christian message of hope, sacrifice, and generosity.)

Happy...Reformation Day?

With all the effort the church has put into making Halloween more "Christian" (Hallelujah Harvests, Fall Festivals, etc), why haven't we ever seen fit to simply celebrate what truly is one of the most important dates in the history of the church? October 31, 1517, is the date given to officially commemorate the start of the Protestant Reformation; it’s the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. Reformation Day.

That day Martin Luther fulfilled Jon Hus's prophecy from a hundred years earlier. In 1415, on the night before he was burned at the stake for preaching against the Catholic Church's abuses, Hus wrote, "Today, you are burning a goose ["Hus" means "goose" in Czech]; however, a hundred years from now, you will be able to hear a swan sing, you will not burn it, you will have to listen to him." And listen to him they did. They still listen. If you travel all over Germany even today, there are swan statues that symbolize Martin Luther and his influence. 

In Luther's day, the only hope for reduced time in Purgatory for members of the church came in the form of indulgences; these merits were based on the sinless life and perfect works of Jesus and Mary, his mother. According to the catholic church, their merits were "stored up" in heaven, where they could be dispersed by the Pope — for a price.  And many of Luther's theses were aimed directly at the sale of indulgences. Consider his words in thesis 27, "There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately as the money clinks in the bottom of the chest."

Luther had spent months preaching against the sale of indulgences, and compiling his theses. So on the evening before Nov. 1 (All Saints Day), he posted his 95 Theses where they would be read and discussed by other Augustinian monks — on the door of the church. On All Saints Day, the indulgence business would be booming as people came from all over to pay to see relics (items the catholic church collected and charged people to see) such as a veil sprinkled with the blood of Christ, a twig of Moses' burning bush, or a piece of bread from the last supper.

As news of Luther's "attack" spread, a new era in the church's history dawned. The Word began to be translated into common languages. There was a return to Scripture as the authority — not the Pope. "Sola Scriptura" (Scripture Alone) became one battlecry of The Reformation. These "protesters" and their movement, Protestantism, gained steam and began refocusing the good news about Jesus on grace and faith and God's sovereign plan for the ages. Martin Luther taught that Christ is our righteousness. That we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone — not through the church and her indulgences. And Luther's motivation—I believe—is summed up in thesis 62, "The true treasure of the church is the Holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God."

October 31 is certainly a day to celebrate! But it has nothing to do with pagan rituals or pumpkins or costumes. On this day about 500 years ago, one man took a stand against the catholic church because he believed the authority and truth of the Bible. And it ignited a movement that we are proud to be part of still today. So what are you celebrating this October 31?

Don't let Reformation Day go by unnoticed. As you celebrate today, use this date as a teaching moment in your family. Take a moment to thank God for his saints and their convictions. And finally, thank God for their boldness and ask him to give us that same spirit of unrest when we see abuse.

Soli Deo Gloria! (the glory of God alone)

Folly To Some, Power To Others

"For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (1 Corinthians 1.18)

"For the word of the cross..." Inevitably, the more time we spend in the scriptures, the more we see the importance of reading them in context. Starting with "for," Paul forces us to read back at least one verse, where he has referred to preaching the gospel, "not with words of eloquent wisdom," but truthfully. In Corinth (and other large Greco-Roman cities) well-skilled orators and philosophers would gather to speak, debate, and ultimately, try to make a name for themselves by displaying their "wisdom." Verse 18 (and through verse 5 of chapter 2) is meant to remind the Corinthians of the power of the message of the cross. In other words, Paul says that no matter how eloquently or skillfully put, the crucifixion of the Messiah cannot be explained in a way that will make sense. Because we cannot reason our way to an understanding of God, Paul calls the Gospel "folly" or "foolishness" to the darkened mind. Paul means for the Corinthians (and us) to understand that the cross, more specifically, is impossible to understand by means of human wisdom, reason, or rationality. In fact, the crucifix was such a horrendous means of execution that it was taboo to even talk about in polite company.

"For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing..." Who are those who are perishing? Two groups of people make up those who are perishing: 1. Jews and 2. Greeks (Gentiles) - and that pretty well includes everyone who does not embrace the gospel with his/her whole life! To the Jews, the cross is folly for a couple of reasons. The Jewish people were looking for signs (1 Cor. 1.22), and though Jesus did His share of miraculous signs, they were not the signs any Jew was expecting. He did things like wash His disciples' feet (John 13.1-20) and drink from a cup borrowed from a Samaritan whore (John 4.1-30). But the Jews wanted a political leader to rise up to restore Jerusalem to its former glory, free from Roman rule. They looked for displays of raw power, not displays of love. Plus, they knew their Torah; they knew that "a hanged man is cursed by God" (Deuteronomy 21.23). And even though they had the prophets and knew Isaiah 53, a Messiah who suffered (or served) was way outside the expectations. The cross (and its implications) was simply impossible for Jews to overcome.

To the Greeks (Gentiles), the cross is folly for entirely different reasons. They valued men like Plato and Aristotle. The Greeks sought wisdom (1 Cor. 1.22), and though Jesus was incredibly wise (ritually stumping the Pharisees and teachers with His answers when they challenged Him) the Greeks dismissed and ridiculed the gospel and those who preached it due to the simplicity of the message and the typical blunt-ness with which it was presented. Paul's lack of "words of eloquent wisdom" (1 Cor. 1.17) seemed uncultured and laughable. Plus, they had their preconceived ideas of God - God could not become a man, because that would involve Him in mundane human affairs, which was insulting for a god. Then theres "apatheia," or the inability to feel. To the Greek, Jesus could not be God because if He felt sorrow or joy, then some person must be influencing Him and is therefore more powerful than God. So for the Greek who tried to philosophize his way to God through mere human wisdom and rhetoric, the cross was not only an impossibility, but was ridiculous.

"For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to those of us..." To those who can come to the cross in spite of our expectations. To those who come without needing wisdom or reason.

"For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved..." Who treasure Jesus. Who have been justified and redeemed. Who are being sanctified. Who will one day be glorified.

"For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved it is the power of God." The cross. The gospel. The joyful (Heb. 12.2), sorrowful (Matt. 26.38-39), beautiful, painful torture and death by the most excruciating and disgusting means of punishment ever invented. Then the defeat of death and its sting (1 Cor. 15.55-57). Salvation (Rom. 1.16). Eternal life (1 John 5.20).

Amen.