The Four Major Questions the Reformation Answered in a New Way

Last year was a landmark year for Protestant Christians. People from all over the world gathered in big groups and small groups and everything in between to recognize the achievements of the Reformation. This reached a climax on October 31, which marked the 500thanniversary of what many call the start of the Protestant Reformation. On that day in 1517, Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. That event, though unbeknownst at the time, would go on to change the world.

 

Even though last year’s anniversary celebrations garnered a lot of attention, I believe that most Christians still don’t know what the Reformation was all about and why it was so revolutionary. I recently stumbled across a very helpful quote from historian Bruce Shelley that explains what was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. It helps us understand what Luther and the many other Reformers were protesting against. Here it is:

 

Martin Luther….. “took four basic Catholic (Roman Catholic) concerns and offered invigorating new answers. To the question, how is a person saved? Luther replied, “not by works but by faith alone.” To the question, where does religious authority lie? he answered, “not in the visible institution called the Roman church but in the Word of God found in the Bible.” To the question, what is the church? he responded, “the whole community of Christian believers, since all are priests before God.” And to the question, what is the essence of Christian living? He replied, “serving God in any useful calling, whether ordained or lay.” To this day any classical description of Protestantism must echo those central truths.” (page 257 Church History in Plain Language – 4thedition, by Bruce Shelley)

 

We could take a lot of time to unpack the significance of these new answers to truly foundational questions. However, we will save that for another blog post at another time. I will commend to you the study of church history and the study of the Reformation in particular. This was titanic movement and work of God through the means of ordinary men and women. It is certainly something we can celebrate and praise God for, even centuries later.

 

 

The Parable of the Seed Growing and the Miracle of Regeneration

I was privileged to spend my growing up years on a farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. My Dad was a grain farmer and I got front row seeds to watch him as he undertook his farming enterprise. In the spring, my Dad started by preparing the ground – tilling it up getting it ready for seeding. Then came the actually planting part. With the aid of modern equipment, billions of little seeds found their way into the ground. But then after the rush of getting the crop planted, things rapidly slowed down. Most of what you do over the summer is wait…..and watch…..and prepare for the harvest.

Jesus told a parable in Mark 4 that is unique to the gospels and powerfully illustrates the miracle of salvation. He said, “The Kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

In this passage, Jesus did what he often does, and that is to use an agricultural illustration in order to illustrate truth. Of course, agriculture was a touch-point to the culture, much more so than it is today. And Jesus’ basic point is that when you plant a seed in the ground, remarkably…..it grows! Most of the time farmers and gardeners take this for granted. They know that it is going to happen, but they can’t explain why or how it does happen.

Have you ever stopped to think about how amazing it is that seeds grow? Why is it that as soon as you put this little seed in the ground and give it some water and sunlight that all of a sudden it starts to grow? It is a miracle! In our day and age, scientists can explain incredible complexity, but yet how do you explain the miracle of growth. I guess in one sense, you can’t. It is simply beyond human comprehension. In other sense, we as Christians can say – it’s a God thing.

This same is true of regeneration or “the new birth.” God gives spiritual life to those who are dead in their trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). God doesn’t do this because of any worth or merit on the part of the sinner; He does so simply because of His grace and mercy (Ephesians 2:8-9). I would add that God does this on the basis of the worth and merit of Christ and His atoning sacrifice on the cross.

In this parable, the farmer represents the evangelist and the seed represents the gospel. And what is crystal clear is that the farmer doesn’t make the seed grow. Rather, he goes to bed and meanwhile, remarkably, the seed grows all by itself. That is why we would say that regeneration is a God thing. As Romans 1:16 says: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Notice how it is not the power of the evangelist. It is not his persuasive words that cause another person to be born again. No, it is the power of God. It is God and only God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist,” (Romans 4:17) who can work such a miracle in the heart of a sinner.

By way of application, rejoice in your salvation! The Bible says, “yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:18). Along with that, as you spread the seed of God’s word, always keep in mind that it is not in your power to save the sinner. It is only the power of God and the atoning sacrifice of Christ that have the power to save. So……go humbly and confidently and be about the work of your Master.

The Ministry of the Holy Spirit: Lessons from John 14-16

A couple weeks ago I was teaching on the ministry of the Holy Spirit and I was struck by just how much we learn from John 14, 15, and 16. Of course, the whole Bible contains lessons about the Spirit, but we learn more in this portion of Scripture than anywhere else. Here is a sampling which I trust you will find encouraging in your walk with the Lord.

  1. God the Father will send the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name (14:16, 14:26, 15:26)
  2. The Holy Spirit is called the Helper, Advocate, Counselor, Comforter (14:16, 14:26, 15:26, 16:7)
  3. Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “another Helper” (14:26). The first, of course, was Jesus.
  4. The Holy Spirit will be with believer’s forever (14:16)
  5. Also called the “Spirit of truth” (14:17, 15:26, 16:13)
  6. The world cannot receive the Holy Spirit because it does not know Him (14:17)
  7. The Holy Spirit dwells within believer’s (14:17)
  8. The Holy Spirit will teach believer’s all things (14:26) and guide then into all the truth (16:13)
  9. The Holy Spirit will bring to our remembrance all that Jesus says (14:26)
  10. The Holy Spirit will testify on behalf of Jesus (15:26)
  11. Jesus will send the Holy Spirit (see the connection with #1) (15:26, 16:7)
  12. The Holy Spirit will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment (16:8)
  13. The Holy Spirit will not speak with His own authority (16:13), but with the authority of God.
  14. The Holy Spirit will declare to believer’s the things that are to come (16:13)
  15. The Holy Spirit will glorify Christ by declaring the Word of God (16:14)

Two bonus lessons: The Holy Spirit is God (who else could do all of the above) and the Holy Spirit is a person (the pronoun “he” is used throughout John 14-16).

What is the Illumination of the Holy Spirit?

J.I. Packer: “The work of the Spirit in imparting this spiritual understanding is called illumination or enlightening. It is not a giving of new revelation, but a work within us that enables us to grasp and to love the revelation that is there before us in the biblical text as heard and read, and as explained by teachers and writers. Sin in our mental and moral system clouds our minds and wills so that we miss and resist the force of Scripture. God seems to us remote to the point of unreality, and in the face of God’s truth we are dull and apathetic. The Spirit, however, opens and unveils our minds and attunes our hearts so that we understand.” (Concise Theology p. 155)

 

Another definition: “The ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian person and community in assisting believers to interpret, understand and obey the Scriptures.” (IVP Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms)

 

It is important to note, as Packer touched on in his definition, that illumination is not about receiving new revelation. The canon is closed (Revelation 22:18-19) and Scripture is complete and sufficient (2 Timothy 3:16-17) to meet our every need. Far too many people have been led astray by looking for new revelation from God instead of looking to the Holy Spirit to shed light and illumine what has already been given in the Bible.

 

So we would say that God not only speaks through His Son (Hebrews 1:1), but God also speaks through His Word. Through the agency of the Holy Spirit, God allows us to see the truth of Scripture that has been placed before us. A lot of people today emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit over and above the Word of God. In all reality, they work together. As we open the text of Scripture and search out its riches, the Spirit brings life and understanding to our hearts.

 

For further study read: 1 Corinthians 2:14-16, Colossians 1:9-10, 1 John 5:20, 2 Corinthians 4:6, and Ephesians 1:18.

The Difference Between Disciples and Apostles

“We read in the New Testament about disciples and apostles, and we tend to think that the two words are synonymous. They are not. A disciple is a learner, a student. An apostle is one who is commissioned by his master with the master’s own authority, then sent out in the master’s name. That distinction is critically important for us because the New Testament tells us that the prophets and the Apostles are the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20). That means the apostles had what we call “apostolic authority” over the church of all ages, which authority they were given by the One who sent them.

The first Apostle in the New Testament, the Apostle par excellence, was Jesus. He said, “I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent ME gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak” (John 12:49). Our Lord Himself is the supreme Apostle of the Father, for He carries in His ministry nothing less than the authority of the Father. The twelve, however, were Jesus’ Apostles, having been chosen from the much larger group of disciples who followed Jesus (see Luke 6:13). Thus, Jesus gave to them His own authority.”

Copied from pages 122-123 of R.C. Sproul’s commentary, Mark: He Taught Them As One Who Had Authority.

Comparing the Appearances of Moses and Jesus

I’m going to do something in this post that most people are pretty good at – comparing. Even as Christians we tend to do this, and typically, it is not to our benefit. When we compare ourselves to someone else, we often end up breaking the 10th commandment, which deals with coveting (Exodus 20:17). Let me encourage you to guard your heart from this tendency which only works to hinder your walk with the Lord. However, I think we can benefit from comparing the appearances of two well-know biblical characters – Moses and Jesus.

You will remember that when Moses was born, there was something immediately recognizable about him. As it is rendered in Exodus 2:2, “He was a fine child.” Jumping ahead to the New Testament, Stephen adds, “At this time Moses was born and was beautiful in God’s sight” (Acts 7:20). This tells us that not only was Moses a stand out in appearance, but also that God looked with favor upon him. The author of Hebrews summarizes this in saying, “By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful” (Hebrews 11:24). Not only did his family recognize this, but so too the Pharaoh’s daughter who took him and raised him as her own. We could go on to take an in depth look at all of the aspects of his greatness, but that is not my intention in this post. I would simply posit that Moses was a beautiful baby and we have no reason to think that his physical attractiveness diminished when he was fully grown. Even as he was about to die, he still had great strength (see Deuteronomy 34:7).

Lets shift gears – what do we know about what Jesus looked like? Answer: not a whole lot. The gospel writers are concerned to describe his humanity (think: fully God, fully man), but they are not nearly as concerned to describe specific details of what he looked like. Perhaps our best clue comes from the Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah 53.  We read in verse 2, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” The reader can immediately spot a contrast between Jesus and Moses. One was beautiful, and One was not. Safe to say – people didn’t follow Jesus because of his looks. And while it would be unwise to say he was “ugly”, it would be more accurate to say he was a typical, ordinary man.

Perhaps a fitting way to conclude is by looking at 1 Samuel 16:6-7. “When they (David’s brothers) came, he looked on Eliab and thought, Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him. But the Lord said to Samuel, Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Thank God today for the body he has given you, and resist the temptation to compare.

Special thanks to my friend John Sensenig for these insights.

Christ’s Heavenly Session

Our twin daughters love “baby Jesus.” Before Christmas, we went to a parade in our community and one of the girls said, “I don’t want to see Santa Claus, I just want to see baby Jesus!” As Christian parents, Steph and I are glad for this, however, we have also tried to explain to our kids that Jesus did not stay a baby. The gospel writer Luke tells us that as a boy, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). At age 30 he began his ministry, which lasted for about 3 years. According to the plan of God, He was crucified and buried, but He rose again on the third day. For forty days, Jesus showed Himself to hundreds of people through various post-resurrection appearances (1 Corinthians 15:5-8). Then Jesus culminated his earthly life with His ascension to heaven. “And when He had said these things, as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).

A Definition

The ascension is one of the most overlooked doctrines in Christian theology. It is important because it helps answer the question – where is Jesus now and what is He doing? As 1 Peter 3:21b-22 tells us: “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” This verse describes what is sometimes called “Christ’s heavenly session.” In case you were wondering, the word session comes from a Latin word that simply means, “sitting.” The Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is sitting (and reigning) at the right hand of God the Father. This is His heavenly session.

Another helpful verse is Hebrews 1:3. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” This is what we might call “session” language. Literally, the author of Hebrews writes, “He sat down at the right hand” of God. With the work of redemption accomplished, Christ could now return to his throne on high to reign and have dominion. And as Christ reigns, God works to accomplish all of his cosmic purposes. “The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool” (Psalm 110:1).

J.I. Packer puts it this way: “Christ’s session will continue until all his and our enemies, including death, are brought to nothing. The last enemy of death will cease to be when Christ at his appearing raises the dead for judgment (John 5:28-29). Once judgment has been executed, the work of the mediatorial kingdom will be over, and Christ will triumphantly deliver the kingdom to the Father.” (Check out 1 Corinthians 15:22-28 for more on this).

Three Applications

So why does all this matter? First and foremost, we must remember that Jesus Christ is alive and well. The resurrection wasn’t just a hoax concocted by the disciples. Jesus Christ was truly raised to life and is alive and well even to this day. He conquered death and set the captives free. This gives us hope! As one hymn puts it, “because He lives, I can face tomorrow.” Or, because He lives, we as Christians can live. Praise God!

Secondly, we can take comfort in the fact that Jesus is interceding for us. “Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). This should be both exciting and comforting to the believer. In our weakness and in our times of need, our precious Savior is interceding on our behalf.

Lastly, we can know that everything is under the rule and authority of Christ. Whether it be angels, authorities, or powers. There is no realm of this universe that does not fall under the reign and rule and dominion of Christ. As Ephesians 1:20-21 reminds us, God raised Christ “from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the one to come.”

In short, Christ reigns and rules on high. There is no earthly power or kingdom that can compare with the rule of Christ. So when you watch the nightly news, or read on the internet about wars and rumors of wars, and government shutdowns, and corrupt leadership, and the national debt, and immorality, and whatever kind of news you encounter, just remember that Jesus reigns. He reigns and rules on high and is seated at the right hand of God the Father!