Remember Your Leaders: John Calvin

“No man ever had a profounder sense of God than he; no man ever more unreservedly
surrendered himself to the Divine direction.” –BB Warfield

Calvin is the father of Reformed Theology. It’s a wonder this Presbyterian didn’t begin our series with Calvin. Central to reformed theology for Calvin was the supremacy of God’s glory and the Scriptures for understanding first who God is, and therefore the purpose of His creation. Few have exhibited as much devotion to the proper handling of the Scriptures as that of John Calvin. He was a man who found himself at all times enamored with the glory of God as displayed in His Scriptures. At every point of the canon Calvin found that it pointed to the unsurpassing glory of God as it’s utmost end. For those of us who know Calvin we can’t forget to remember his contribution to our faith. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Calvin, his passion for God will ignite a flame in your heart to set aside all purposes in your life that lead elsewhere than God and encourage Godward focus in all that you are.

I have been influenced more by Calvin than any other theologian and his influence has not simply been a matter of knowledge, he has drawn me to worship and glorify God in my daily life. My hope is he will do the same for you, he will take your heart and set it on fire for God’s glory.

A Biographical Sketch

John_Calvin_2Jean Cauvin was born July 10th, 1509, in Noyon, France. He was a brilliant boy and was sent at 14 to study theology at University of Paris by order of his father. However five years later he began a degree in law in Bourges and Orleans because his father had a disagreement with the church. Shortly following this change of course Calvin’s father passed away and he returned to Paris to study the Classics which had become a dear love to him. At the age of 23 (1532) he published his first book, a commentary on Seneca, a classic secular text. To say he was driven would be an understatement.

Sometime between 1532 and the end of 1533 Calvin became a Christian. His friend Nicholas Cop gave a rather Protestant fueled address at the University of Paris and was chastised by parliament for being Lutheran-like in his speech. This led to an attack on other Lutheran minded people, of which Calvin was one. He was forced to flee France. He intended to go to Strasbourg, Germany and retire to a life of writing and teaching; God had other plans. Troop movements prevented Calvin from traveling directly to Strasbourg; he was forced to detour through Geneva, Switzerland. In Geneva William Farel, the fiery leader of the Reformation movement there, chastised Calvin for hoping to attend a life of writing and leisure:

[Farel] proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement…if I should withdraw and refuse to give assistance, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken.” (piper 129)

Calvin, by God’s sovereign plan, with the help of troop movements blocking Calvin’s path, became minister of St. Pierre’s in Geneva.

However Calvin did not attend to all the desires of city council and they booted him out of town in 1538. He finally made it to Strasbourg where he spent three years teaching New Tesament and writing. He met his wife Idelette de Bure here and married her in August of 1540. During Calvin’s leave, the city council realized their mistake and begged Calvin back. He returned on September 13, 1541 and his first Sunday back preached on the next verse of the series on Acts that he left off with when he was kicked out of Geneva. He remained there as a minister until his death in 1564.

Because Calvin is so well known, we will look at three things we can learn and imitate of him in our faith, two of which are commonly known, and one which is more obscure.

Soli Deo Gloria

Calvin’s faith led him to focus primarily on the supremacy of God’s glory. If we imitate nothing else in Calvin’s faith than this, we are on solid ground. This truly is the foundation of Reformed Theology. John Piper speaks about Calvin in this manner, “The fundamental issue for John Calvin, from the beginning to the end of his life, was the issue of the centrality and supremacy and majesty of the glory of God” (Piper 119). Indeed one can scarcely read anything written by Calvin and not see that God’s glory was his chief end in what he said, how he ministered, and how he lived his private life. Calvin claims that it is his highest goal by his own writing:

“The thing [O God] at which I chiefly aimed, and for which I most diligently labored, was, that the glory of thy goodness and justice…might shine forth conspicuous, that the virtue and blessings of thy Christ…might be fully displayed” (Dillenberger, John Calvin: Selections from His Writings, 110).

We learn from Calvin what our proper aim is: the glory of God! In the 1600’s the Westminster Assembly ratified this as true according to question and answer one, “What is our chief purpose in life?…To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Calvin’s faith leads the way for us who live in the 21st century. In remembering him as a leader of the faith we are drawn to imitate his sheer delight and devotion to glorifying God in all that he did. May we seek in our days to glorify the Creator and not the creature (Rom. 1:24-25) in our studies in school, in our relationships at work, in our mutual worship together as a family, and above all as witnesses and ambassadors on Jesus’ behalf to the world.

Scripture As Spectacles

Second to Calvin’s devotion to God’s glory is his devotion to the Scripture’s. Calvin famously describes the Scriptures “spectacles” whereby they help us “[gather] up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds…[and] clearly shows us the true God” (Institutes 1.6.1, 70). Therefore as a child of God he was vehemently focused on the importance of the living word of God. He shined as a preacher, as an expositor of God’s Word to his congregation day in and day out. His life was “a ministry of unrelenting exposition of the Word of God. [His] constancy had a focus, the exposition of the Word of God” (Piper 137). Few examples of the faith had as high a view of Scripture as Calvin. He magnifies it’s importance in this manner:

“Now, in order that true religion may shine upon us, we ought to hold that it must take its beginning from heavenly doctrine and that no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture. Hence, there also emerges the beginning of true understanding when we reverently embrace what it pleases God there to witness of himself.” (Calvin instates 72)

We learn then very clearly from our great father in the faith that Scripture is of utmost importance to our lives. For scripture acts as the equilibrium of the Christian; it directs our steps, one foot in front of the other, without falling over, towards a true knowledge of God and therefore of ourselves. To learn and imitate Calvin’s faith leads us to be pupils of the Scriptures.

A Godward Happiness

The glory of God and the primacy of Scripture are commonly known about Calvin, but this third point is more obscure to his theological children. Calvin was a man who was exceedingly happy in God alone. We often think in the church that happiness is a secondary issue that is set aside for God’s glory. But Calvin understood that giving glory to God was precisely what we were created to do, and to do that meant that we were to truly be happy, what God longs for us. And so our service of God rests in our happiness towards Him. Calvin puts it like this:

“For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him—they will never yield him willing service. Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him.” (Institutes 41)

We learn from Calvin that we are to be happy people. We learn from Calvin’s faith that our happiness is only truly happiness when it rests in God and how he has designed us to be happy, in the presence of his glory. As imitators of his faith then we ought to endeavor to find God as our supreme treasure and delight, the person who brings a smile to our faces and one in which we long to live for because he alone is our happiness. Pray that we might learn from the faith of John Calvin, that God would draw us nearer to Himself through the great leader he has given to us as an example of faith.

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There is much written on John Calvin. For an introduction I would recommend Steven Lawson’s The Expository Genius of John Calvin, Burk Parson’s John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, or Piper’s chapter on Calvin in The Legacy of Sovereign Joy. For something a bit more meatier I would look at THL Parker’s classic biography, John Calvin, or I would go straight to Calvin’s Institutes, they are a wonderfully accessible read.

**Next Week: Remembering Your Leader Jonathan Edwards

Remember Your Leaders: The Apostle Paul

Perhaps no man in Christian history, save Jesus Himself, has led the way as an example of faith to be imitated as the Apostle Paul. Our understanding of Hebrews 13:7 encourages us to both remember our leaders as those who 1) spoke the word of God to  others, and 2) whose life also matched the proclamation (consider the outcome of their way of life). The greatest example of someone who spoke God’s word true and whose life was congruent with the proclamation is Jesus. He was perfect. But the testimony we have of the Apostle Paul reveals him as a sinner, as we all are, but a sinner whose entire life was transformed by his encounter with the risen Jesus, an encounter and calling that has made Paul an incredible example of faith for us to imitate. His life, though not perfect, matches the proclamation of the Gospel very clearly. He was a man who possessed the secret to life, the secret to saving faith, and he strived to make that secret public both in what he said and how he lived, he proclaimed salvation by Jesus Christ alone.

A Biographical Sketch

St-Paul-Preaching-in-AthensPaul was born Saul, a Roman citizen (Acts 22:27) from Tarsus, a city in the south of Turkey, just a few miles from the Mediterranean Sea. Though rather than worshiping Roman deities (i.e. Caesar), Saul was raised an ardent Jew. In fact he was a “Hebrew born of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:6). Not only was he a Jew, he was an exemplary Jew as He spells out in Philippians 3:5, he was “circumcised on the eight day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” His life as a Jew was of exemplary character. Indeed the pedigree he discloses here in Philippians is one that would set him apart as a real example of Jewish heritage.

Saul was highly educated in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), a leader among the Pharisees, the strict educated Jewish elite. He was educated among a Jewish Ivy League school. It was his academic expertise in the Pharasaical school that blended so well with his own dedicated temperament that made him such a force of zeal, both against Christianity and later for Christianity. This zeal led him to persecute the Church (1 Cor. 15:9), which included the persecution and martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1-3). He thought he was doing right, what the Jewish faith would commend him for as a good Jew.

However, on a road approaching Damascus, north of the Sea of Galilee, Saul had an unexpected encounter. The very founder of the religion he was persecuting appeared to him, Jesus Himself. Jesus questioned why Saul was persecuting Him and then saw fit to blind him. But with the trial he also provided the way of healing; a man named Ananias who would lay his hands upon Saul for healing, a testament to Jesus’ power and authority. It is here that Saul is called to go and proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles. Saul sheds his Jewish name and takes a new Christian name, Paul. This calling takes him on numerous missionary journeys around the Mediterranean, results in imprisonment, stonings, beatings, a shipwreck, and more (2 Cor. 11:16-29). All this for the Gospel. This call to proclaim it took him eventually to Rome where many believe he was executed.

His devotion to the calling Jesus placed upon Him led to a faith that we must never forget, a faith that if we are seeking to live as disciples of Jesus, we must seek to imitate. The following are specific realities within the life of Paul that we as Christians 2000 years removed would be foolish not to learn from and incorporate into our own lives. He is a beacon pointing the way to us to the realities of grace and Christian discipleship.

By Grace Alone
One of the major tenents of the Reformation was sola gratia, by grace alone. This doctrine referred to the means by which a sinner is justified before God, thereby inheriting eternal life. Paul’s letters are foundational to this theological truth. In Pauls’ letter to the Christians at Ephesus he states, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (2:4-5). Indeed Paul’s entire ministry can be described by those two words by grace. Paul saw clearly that saving faith in Jesus Christ was only given to the sinner through grace. Our verse here makes it plain in the original Greek that God is the acting agent. The verse is filled with divine passives, stating what God has done as the primary agent, and stating that we are recipients of God’s action, of God’s bestowing of free grace.

For isn’t this how we define grace? Something that is given to another based on nothing earned but entirely based on the freewill and good desire of the individual bestowing it? This is why any notion of earning God’s grace, of earning salvation, is so preposterous according to the Scriptures. Paul makes it explicit that in order for grace to be grace, it has to be given contrary to any striving of the individual to attain it. Faith in what Jesus Christ has done on the cross is a gift given to the individual by God’s gracious will. Faith itself is not something that we can bring about on our own, for if it was then grace wouldn’t be grace. If we could believe by our own power, then the very act of faith would be an act earning salvation. But Paul’s writings are very clear that salvation is by grace alone, by God’s free decision to be gracious.

We learn from Paul the depths of God’s goodness towards us. When we see that God knows only He can rescue us, we learn to adore this God and glorify Him as the sole agent in our salvation, the sole gift giver. When we let grace be grace, and turn from any works righteousness, we rest in the beauty of God’s sovereignty and are drawn to glorify Him with thankfulness, that He would be gracious enough to rescue a sinner like me from the depths of my wretchedness. Soli Deo Gloria.

Suffering Redeemed
Paul was not a man who had an easy life. We have already alluded to some of what he had endured for the sake of his call to share the gospel with the gentiles above. But one thing that we can learn from Paul has to do with how he responds to these hardships. In his second letter to the church at Corinth he writes this particularly regarding his physical weakness, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).

We read this verse and we think “How could Paul say this?!” We suffer in this life and have seen hardships befall us. We know they aren’t easy to endure and we come across verses like this and we think that Paul was out of touch with life. This may not be the best verse to share with someone who is suffering, but it is an integral verse for building a theology of suffering and pain. For we see in v. 9 just prior Paul states, “But [Jesus] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” And I do believe this is the key to a theology of suffering that it exists for a purpose. The ultimate end of suffering, according to Paul, is so that it might lead us to rest on God’s grace alone, and not our strength. When we are reminded of how weak we are we realize how much it is we need to rest and trust in God.

And so Paul can say that he is content in hardships because he knows that in the midst of them he is weak and the only strength he has comes from God. Paul says this in 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” For as FF Bruce says, “If his ministry was so effective despite his physical weakness, then the transcendent power was manifestly God’s, not his own.” (FF Bruce, 136)

We learn from Paul that the hardships that assail us in life ought to be redeemed. We should view them as an opportunity to look to God, to say to Him, “Lord please help me, I am weak, please be strong that you might receive due glory.” When we see our weakness as a vehicle for God’s strength to be supplied, God gets the glory and we are sustained by the sufficiency of His grace.

The New Self
The last key lesson from Paul that I want to highlight (there are many) is his understanding of the old and new self. In Paul’s letter to both the church in Ephesus and Colossae he makes this doctrine a key point of exhortation and encouragement. Paul explains that for those in Christ they have a new nature. The old self, which was alienated from God due to a bondage and total inclination to sin, has been put to death and instead we now stand in the new life that Jesus has given us.

In his letter to the church at Colossae Paul states, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God…for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:1,3; see Eph. 4:17-32 for a fuller exposition of this doctrine). The key encouragement that Paul brings to his Christian audience is that they have put to death the old sinful self and have been reborn and are united with Christ in heaven at this very moment. Because of this reality Paul encourages them to then live as new creations. If we are made new and our old self has been put to death we are to act like it. Knowing that we are united to Him who is at the right hand of the Father, united to Him who intercedes on our behalf, united to Him who speaks every prayer we pray to His fathers ear, knowing this enables us to live in the reality of the new life.

We learn with Paul’s exposition of the new self that we are liberated from our sinful past. We are made new. We are forever shiny and clean in God’s eyes. There is great comfort here. Out of this comfort by God’s grace we are given the strength to then live as new creations, seeking things that are above and seeking to live in the reality of our justification.

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If you are looking for a wonderful comprehensive understanding of the Apostle Paul I would turn your attention to FF Bruce’s wonderful text Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Bruce’s understanding of Paul is top notch and the text is easily accessible with chapters discussing different areas of Paul’s life and his influence.

**Next Week: Remembering Your Leader John Calvin

Remember Your Leaders: Augustine

[Augustine] has been strikingly called incomparably the greatest man whom, “between Paul the Apostle and Luther the Reformer, the Christian Church has possessed.”
–Adolf Von Harnack quoted by BB Warfield

Christian history is saturated with leaders whose impact has drastically changed the shape of Christian thought. Perhaps no leader, as Adolf Von Harnack has suggested, has transformed our understanding of God as much as that of Augustine. He may very well be the greatest theologian apart from Paul and Jesus that this world will ever know. He is of utmost importance for Christians today to know. We must remember this man of God and the influence he has had and continues to exert in our time. And again, our call to remember leads to imitating the faith exhibited by these Christian leaders. Augustine, a man who lived in the 4th and 5th century, has much to offer us here in the 21st century if we would but remember and seek to imitate his faith.

A Biographical Sketch
augustineAugustine was born on November 13, 354 AD, in Thagaste, a town in northern Africa (modern day Algeria). His mother Monica was a devout Christian, she is a patron saint to many of motherly prayers since throughout her life she prayed earnestly for her son to become a Christian. His father Patrick was not a Christian in whose footsteps Augustine followed. He was a master of rhetoric and finished his doctorate at the age of 21. For the first 31 years of his life he lived far from what we should consider an example of faith. He was chief among womanizers by his own profession. The love of women was the biggest hindrance to his profession of faith. By the age of 16 he had a concubine whom he loved and eventually a son with her, Adeodatus.

As a learned man Augustine sought truth steadfastly in his life. He probed the depths of Manichaeism and platonism (and other philosophies) only to find that they were all but half-truths that he could dissect and debunk. His chief goal in life was to find lasting truth, the bedrock of all other shadows of truth. And so his search for this truth led him eventually to cross paths with many Christian leaders of his day. Chief among these was Ambrose of Milan, another leader in Christian history worthy of remembering. Ambrose directed Augustine by varying degrees towards Christian truth. One afternoon, after many days and weeks of deep struggle with his lifestyle and the incompatibility of the Christian truth he was wrestling with, he came to faith. It happened in a garden in Milan in August of 386 at 32 years of age.

In this garden Augustine wrestled with God was doing by his sovereign hand. He found himself broken, crying beneath a fig tree, when he heard some children next door singing a song with the words “pick it up and read it, pick it up and read it.” Taking it as a sign from God he grabbed the open Bible before him and read feasted his eyes and soul upon Romans 13:13-14: Not in riotousness and drunkenness, not in lewdness and wantonness, not in strife and rivalry; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh and its lusts. Augustine then stated, “I neither wished no needed to read more. No sooner had I finished the sentence than it was as if the light of steadfast truth poured into my heart, and all the shadows of hesitation fled away. By God’s sovereign hand in a Garden a would be giant in the faith came to faith.

was baptized by Ambrose, his father in the faith. At his conversion God reclaimed one of the most brilliant minds ever to think on this earth for his purposes, to lead the church as an example of faith. He returned to Africa, now Hippo, where he wrote and preached as a life transforming tool of grace for God in a world of unbelievers. It is here that Augustine made a lasting impact through the ages, books such as the City of God and Confessions that have never been out of print. In his lifetime he wrote 5 million words comprising some 113 books. He was an intellectual giant. He died in 430 in Hippo, a year before the Goths sacked the city. It is here that Augustine became a primary tool of God in reshaping Christian history. Sixteen hundred years later there is much we are called to remember and imitate from him. Here are three examples of his faith for us to consider to imitate:

A Language and Life of Delight
Throughout Augustine’s writings and sermons he constantly exhibits a person of faith who utterly delights in his God. Few have written with such genuine passion that God alone is their highest delight and sweetness. In the Confessions in particular Augustine exhibits this with language such as this: “Come, O Lord, I pray. Stir us up and call us back; kindle us and take us to yourself. Set us ablaze, and cast your sweetness over us. Let us love you and run to you.” Few talk like this. Few live like this.

Yet it is our calling as men and women of faith to seek God with our entire heart, to love Him, to praise Him, to delight in Him, to savor Him above all else, and to find Him as the only lasting sweetness in our lives. We miss the mark when we find this kind of satisfaction in things other than God: sex, money, alcohol, personal comfort, health, fulfilling relationships, sports, etc. Augustine in the display of his faith through his writings is a leader that we are called to imitate. On this point in particular we would benefit greatly to have our hearts stirred to make God alone our all-satisfying sweetness and uproot anything that has taken His rightful place on the throne of our hearts. When was the last time you referred to God as your sweetness? Maybe if we talk in this manner, if we seek and ask God to set us ablaze, he will become the passion that we all long for deep down. May we delight in God and may He be our only satisfaction in this life and the next.

Realizing the Reality of Grace
As a champion of biblical theology, Augustine fought for the true reality of grace as we see in Scripture, a free sovereign gift from God that has nothing of our earning mixed in with it. For Augustine this understanding came through a long theological battle with Pelagius. Pelagius believed that a person was not completely sinful in every sphere of life. And since this was the case he believed that it was possible for any man or woman to live in righteousness and earn their own salvation. Against this unbiblical notion proposed and maintained by Pelagius, Augustine became an ardent apologist for the teaching of Scripture on sin, grace, and salvation.

Augustine understood according to Scripture that all humanity is totally sinful (Rom. 3:23; 6:23) and therefore completely incapable at any point of living the life required to attain salvation and relationship with God. The bedrock of orthodox Christianity was defended here by Augustine, that we are totally depraved as Calvin and the Synod of Dort would later articulate. With this theological truth in view, Augustine argued that we can earn nothing but death and separation from God. Instead the biblical model of salvation includes grace as grace, a free gift given by God that no one can earn. Augustine thus paints God as completely sovereign and gracious to the sinner in Jesus Christ. As an apologist Augustine fervently fought for this and recovered and defended a truth that we as Christians stand upon as orthodox.

With this in mind, to imitate the faith of Augustine would lead us to renounce any taint of works righteousness in our understanding of justification. Instead we should look to our own sinfulness, how far we are from God’s created design, and be overwhelmed with the utterly free grace that God gives us in His Son Jesus Christ. To imitate this faith is to rest each and every day in the promises God gives us by grace alone. This causes us to live lives of constant thanksgiving to God, glorifying Him. To imitate this faith is to daily live out of grace, not of works. Let us feel grace as Augustine did.

Witness to God’s Grace and Glory
Augustine’s Confessions was one of the first true autobiographies to be written. He created a new genre with its conclusion. It is a prayer, written to God, but also written to man by which Augustine’s “reader may reflect upon the depths from which we must call upon [God].” It is primarily a testimony to the power and glory of God in how He had worked in Augustine’s life up until it was written. As such, the pages of the Confessions are strewn about with a constant love for God, lifting Him up as the only one worthy of being glorified. And so he wrote to do just this, to testify to the great reality of our good, sovereign, and gracious God.

Augustine should encourage us by his faith to imitate his testimony, to seek with how we live and what we say to reveal to others around us the saving power of God in Christ. Augustine states regarding his readers, “Let them love you not less, but more. Let them see that it is through you, who have saved me from the sickness of my sins, that they too do not suffer the same degree from the sickness of their own.” Our call to imitate his faith leads us to show the world around us that our salvation from our sins comes only through the grace of God. How often do we tell neighbors and friends (Christian or not) what it is that God has done for us? This goes hand in hand with seeing God as sweet to us. For if we delight in God it will exude out from our lips and actions and people will see that we are a living testimony for the grace and love of God. Let us testify that there is none greater, none more loving, none more willing to save us than our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

If you are looking to read something of Augustine, which I believe Hebrews 13:7 would suggest, I would begin first with his Confessions. It is a wonderful entrance into Christian biography and his grand language of delight while upholding orthodox theology. John Piper also has a wonderful series of biographies in his The Swans are Not Silent series, of which the first book titled The Legacy of Sovereign Joy contains a great succinct chapter on the influence of Augustine. If you would like to go deep theologically with Augustine may I suggest On Christian Doctrine.

**Next Week: Remembering Your Leader The Apostle Paul

Remember Your Leaders: Martin Luther

The call to remember our leaders and imitate their faith in Hebrews 13:7 is not a suggestion for the Christian, it is a command. Both “remember” and “imitate” are in the imperative mood as verbs. In the same way as parents might tell their children to “stop running!” or to “eat your vegetables” or as a friend might say to another “don’t move!” when she spots a spider crawling across her. These are imperatives. They are commands. We are called to remember and to imitate the faith of our leaders (those who spoke the Word of God to us and whose lives reflect the faith they profess) not as optional, but as essential for our sanctification and endeavor to glorify God with our lives. And so we continue this week in seeking to remember for the purpose of imitating by looking at the faith of Martin Luther.

A Biographical Sketch
photoLuther is the prototypical German reformer. He was born in Eisleben and died in Eisleben. His devotion to the reality of the Gospel was focused on his people, the Germans. At the age of 21 Luther found himself caught in a lightning storm. In a moment of desperation he called out to his father’s saint, “St. Anne help me! I will become a monk.” (Bainton, 25) Out of fear he entered into vocational ministry. It would be this fear that drove much of his movement to reform. He found himself tormented by a God of wrath and confessed daily, for hours on end, so that God might not be mad with him. But as he taught New Testament in Wittenberg “justification by faith” dawned upon him, instead of by works, and the terror that had attended him was replaced by the joy of the gospel.

His reforming call branched at every point from this doctrine of justification by faith. It propelled him to vehemently oppose the current Catholic practices that attended justification with works. Chief of these were the papal indulgences being sold for varying forms of justification in order to help pay for St. Peter’s in Rome. His opposition to the Catholic abuses landed him eventually before a tribunal in Worms (Vorms) where cardinals and officials required that he recant his writings or he would be excommunicated. He did not recant. He went on to translate the Bible into the common German language and gave feet to the protestant reformation and break with Rome. Protestants are indebted to no person more than this man for his ardent pursuit of truth. So what can we learn from him 500 years removed? 3 things:

Luther’s Only Authority
Martin Luther had one authority in his life, the Word of God. However it wasn’t always that way. Luther had many authorities in his life who were vying for his allegiance (the Catholic Church, the Pope, Abbots). But as he grew in his understanding of the Christian faith, really as he read the Scriptures and studied them for himself, he found that nothing should take an ultimate place of authority in our lives save Scripture alone since it is there that God alone speaks and reveals Himself. Whereas the church and pope had been the ultimate authority for years, Luther began something new. As Heiko Oberman says, “What is new in Luther is the notion of absolute obedience to the Scriptures against any authorities; be they popes or councils.” (Oberman, 78)

For him there was no greater authority and director in life than God Himself revealed in His written word. Even when Luther knew that his stance on Scripture would bring persecution, he stood his ground. Before the Diet of Worms, fearing excommunication and all that it entailed, he said famously: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason–I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other–my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” (Bainton, 144)

We learn from Luther that nothing should hold our allegiance beyond the Word of God itself. This was Luther’s conviction and it is our conviction as well. Scripture truly is the only rule for faith and life for the Christian. We cannot neglect to submit to it daily.

Relentless Proclamation
In Luther we also see a relentless drive to proclaim the good news of the Gospel. He was driven as a preacher and teacher to proclaim Truth, the love of God for His creation in Jesus Christ. If Scripture was his authority, then this relentless proclamation was the natural response to what Scripture said. It must be told! Look at his rhythm as a preacher, it’s astounding:

“On Sundays there were the 5:00 AM worship with a sermon on the Epistle, the 10:00 AM service with a sermon on the Gospel, and an afternoon message on the Old Testament or catechism. Monday and Tuesday sermons were on the Catechism; Wednesdays on Matthew; Thursdays and Fridays on the Apostolic letters; and Saturday on John….Luther was one of the greatest preachers in the history of Christendom…between 1510 and 1546 Luther preached approximately 3000 sermons…so the average in [his pastorate] was one sermon every two and a half days.” (Piper, 86-87)

We learn from Luther than an obedience to the truth of the Gospel should naturally work itself in us in our proclamation of the Truth. To hold onto the greatest Truth this world has and ever will know and not share it would be utter selfishness. We may not be vocational preachers like Luther, or maybe we are, but nonetheless it is our call to proclaim this news with relentless fervor.

Justification By Faith Alone
Lastly we see from Luther the central doctrinal tenant of salvation, Justification by Faith alone. As one whose life completely opposed anything of works mixed in with our justification in God’s sight, he championed that it was by faith alone that one is redeemed and reconciled in God’s sight. Where God originally for Luther was a God of vengeance ready to condemn us for the smallest sin, Luther then after reading Paul’s letters found an inexpressible joy that came from the reality that it’s not by works but by faith alone that one is saved. And so Luther said:

“Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.” (Bainton, 49)

Above all from Luther’s influence in the history of Christianity, we learn that our right standing before God rests upon nothing other than God’s own sheer grace towards us and the gift of our faith. Our salvation has absolutely nothing of works mingled in with it. It is solely by God’s sheer grace that one is saved. This is the Truth that we stand upon as Christians, this is the Gospel.

There are many wonderful resources on Martin Luther today. Desiring God has some free resources, sermons and biographies here. The texts I have referenced for this article are worth a read if you are interested in knowing more about this man of God:

Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Penguin Books, 1955).
Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New York: Doubleday, 1992).
John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000).

**Next Week: Remembering Your Leader Augustine of Hippo

Remember Your Leaders: Jesus

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Hebrews 13:7

This imperatival statement from Hebrews is the endeavor to which we will pursue in the coming weeks. There are many whom the author of Hebrews is commending to us Christians as examples of faith to imitate. Yet we often spend little time thinking about those who have prepared the way for our faith today, they are distant memories and saints no longer living. It would be a tragedy to forget these champions in the faith; we must instead remember them and imitate their faith.

Imitate With Reservations
Last week we stated that Hebrews 13:7 defines a particular kind of leader worthy of our imitation and following. They must be 1) someone who spoke the word of God to youand 2) someone whose lifestyle matches their proclamation. We are not called in this verse to imitate whomever we please; there are specific people who adorn the position of a leader in the faith through speaking the truth of the gospel and living it out.

So when Hebrews states we are to imitate their faith, we must be very careful whose faith it is we are imitating. We must have reservations about who it is that we are imitating lest we be led astray as we follow someone’s faith that doesn’t line up with the reality of the gospel. Satan would love for God’s children to be swept up in simply trying to obey this verse and not really focusing on whose faith is worthy of our imitation. There are many charismatic leaders, intelligent leaders, and persuasive leaders whose lives are far from fulfilling the requirements of a leader according to Hebrews. There are indeed many giants in the faith throughout history whose faith we would esteem as worthy of imitation, but whose lives would be folly to imitate in many areas (i.e. many great leaders have worked at the expense of being a good father and husband, these are not secondary calls). We must be careful who we deem worthy of following, we must imitate with reservations.

Imitate Without Reservation
photoHowever there is One with whom we should hold absolutely no reservations when it comes to following: Jesus, the Son of God. No other person in history is worthy of our most focused imitation than the person of Jesus Christ. As Christians we are followers and disciples we follow only Jesus. Every other leader simply leads us to the source of our faith, the supreme example of righteousness. We must seek daily to imitate the faith that Jesus displays in the Scriptures. This is fundamental to being a Christian.

The Epistle of John puts it plainly: By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked (1 John 2:5b-6). If our lifestyle is to genuinely reflect the reality of our saving faith in Christ, we will produce certain fruits in our lives, our lifestyle will look different than those in the world. Fundamental to this difference will be a life focused on imitating the faith of one individual, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. John emphasizes that in order for us to know that we are in him, or in other words simply that we are genuine believers, we ought to walk in the same way in which Jesus lived His life. At the center of Christianity is a deep devotion to following Jesus, to imitating His faith.

A Dangerous Imitation
The command to imitate Jesus is dangerous. I’m convinced that we in the church do a poor job of presenting the reality that is implied by following Jesus: that we too will experience the suffering that He experienced on our behalf. We tend to play suffering down in the church and instead talk about the blessings that Jesus has purchased for us. But at the heart of following Jesus, of imitating His faith, is a dangerous call. The First Epistle of Peter speaks to this reality: For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21). Peter is not the only person to emphasize that our following, our imitation doesn’t simply lead to comfort. If we are disciples, our faith will lead us into times of suffering, just as Jesus suffered for His faith. The Christian faith is a dangerous one in that we will be sure to face suffering in this life for our imitation of the Son of God.

Thomas Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ
Thomas Kempis, the 15th century Augustinian monk, has written a classic in Christian literature on this very topic. To any who would seek in their life to endeavor to imitate Christ by their life, I would commend this book. But may we always remember that our salvation is not one that is earned by how well we live, by how closely we imitate the life and faith of Jesus, it is given as a free gift of grace, based only upon what God has done for us in Jesus alone. I leave you with this quote from Kempis:

“Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness,” [John 8:12] says the Lord. These are Christ’s own words by which He exhorts us to imitate His life and His ways, if we truly desire to be enlightened and free of all blindness of heart. Let it then be our main concern to meditate on the life of Jesus Christ.
Thomas Kempis, Imitation of Christ, I.I.I

**Next Week: Remembering Your Leader Martin Luther

Remember Your Leaders

Who you are today is a reflection in some part of who has been a leader to you. Fundamental to the building block of life is learning from leaders in our lives. When we were children we learned what it mean to be human by copying the ways of our parents (i.e. walking, eating with utensils, learning how to speak, etc.). As adults we learn how to be successful in a new job by watching those who are successful in our field. We are who we are in many respects due to those whom we have followed in our lives, the leaders whom we have looked up to.

Who is a Leader Worthy of Following?
photoThe Author of Hebrews knows this reality, that we are followers. He knows that we are people who learn from others, particularly the leaders to whom we aspire to be like. And so Scripture, in God’s wisdom, wholeheartedly affirms that we are to be a people who continue to learn in this manner, by imitating our leaders. Hebrews 13:7 charges the reader clearly to this manner of life: Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. We learn two things very quickly from this passage:

  1. A leader is a particular kind of person, someone who spoke the word of God to you. We are to remember those leaders who have led in such a way as to lead us to the truth of God in His Word. According to Scripture, a leader is one who leads others to God.
  2. A leader is someone that we are imitate. A leader who leads others to God will have a life that reflects this conviction. They will be people whom we should therefore imitate; they are leading by example of what it means to be a Christian. The shepherd image in the NT calls them to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3b); they are shepherd-leaders whom we are called to imitate.

Leaders to the World vs. Leaders to God
The exhortation then is for us to imitate the lives of those whom have led their own in a manner that reflects the calling of the Gospel. We are not meant to follow the leaders that the world portrays as leadership material, for very few of them lead us to God. They instead lead to fame, fortune, success, and pleasure. God’s leaders take our hand and show us how to live in humility, as a servant, in love, and in devotion to God. God’s leaders are very different from the world’s.

Remember Your Leaders
Therefore to obey this verse means that we to imitate the lives of those who lead us in Truth. But in order for us to do this we must begin with the first three words of the verse: Remember your leaders. We must remember those in our lives who have led in a Godly manner, those who are worthy of our imitation. It is the calling upon the Christian to remember those who led us, to remember those who taught us regarding God’s grace in Jesus Christ, to remember those whom we have read whose wisdom has brought us thirsty for more of God.

Therefore over the next few weeks we will looking at particular leaders of the Christian faith who are worthy of our imitation. They will be people whom we can learn from, whose lives have sounded forth a deep relationship with God. Our call is two fold: 1) to imitate Godly leaders, and 2) to first of all remember them. We cannot imitate if we don’t know who it is we are called to imitate. There are people who have proved worthy to follow, people who have led many to Jesus. Our task in the coming weeks is to remember these leaders.

**Next Week: Remembering Your Leader Jesus

Justification and Indulgences?

Can we earn our forgiveness with God? For many centuries of the Christian church, the issue of how we are saved from our sins and reconciled to God has been center stage. The term the church has used to describe one’s salvation has been justification. The term implies a legal reckoning, that there has been a breach against certain laws which a person was required to keep. Due to Adam’s sin in the garden humanity is now seen by God not as righteous, but as sinful and wretched living in open rebellion. God therefore instituted the covenant of grace in His Son Jesus Christ and His work on the cross for humanity. The death of Jesus Christ provides the opportunity for justification before God, for our sins to be wiped clean and a verdict of righteousness given to us. How then does this justification take place, is it earned?

Luther, Pope Francis, and Indulgences
martin_lutherIn the 1500’s, a German monk named Martin Luther took this question on in full force. He bucked the answer that the Catholic Church church gave and thereby defied the most powerful institution in the world. The Catholic Church, under the leadership of the Pope, held as orthodox that salvation is obtained not entirely by God’s grace, but instead may be earned by works on our part. Chief example was the widespread practice of indulgences, an assurance that one could purchase for themselves or a loved one that ensured their salvation. Just yesterday the current pope (Francis) continued this practice of indulgences, promising those who follow him on Twitter will be recipients of “indulgences.” In response to indulgences, Luther wrote his famous 95 Theses on October 31st, 1517 (a date often referred to as the beginning of the Reformation) as a vehement rebuttal of the theological abuse the Catholic Church was practicing. Luther says:

Indulgences are most pernicious because they induce complacency and thereby imperil salvation. Those persons are damned who think that letters of indulgence make them certain of salvation…His Holiness abuses Scripture…I deny that he is above Scripture. Bainton’s Here I Stand, 63.

Justification by Faith Alone
Luther instead insisted that our theology of justification be based upon the Word of God alone. He came across passages such as Ephesians 2:1-10 (for by grace you have been saved through faith) and cried “foul!” The clear means of justification to Luther according to God’s Word was that it happened by faith alone, through grace alone. Justification was not a by product of something that we merited, something that we earned by either being good (which would do nothing since the law was already broken) or by purchasing indulgences which promised salvation (though no such authority is given according to Scripture). To Luther and the Protestant Reformers, nothing but the grace of God alone could justify a person and declare them righteous. It had nothing to do with our striving and any such effort on our part was “striving after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14).

While the Reformation was successful in that it instituted faithfulness to Scripture in the Protestant church, there are still many who have yet come to know this glorious reality of God’s grace. It is part of every Christian’s calling to communicate the truth of the Gospel, that it is by grace alone that we are forgiven, that we are justified in God’s sight.  This is the good news of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the foundation of our faith.

Careful Who Leads You

No person is free from following another’s leading. Humanity consists of followers and leaders and we all hold both offices at the same time. We follow someone and at the same time may be a leader to another. Who leads us will directly impact how we will lead others. Therefore to know who to follow is a serious reality with implications beyond ourselves. Careful who it is you follow. Careful who leads you.

Augustine on Who Not To Follow
augustineThe words from Augustine’s Confessions strike this point to the heart: “But it is not surprising that I was drifting off towards these vanities, and away from you, my God, considering what sort of men were held up to me as examples to imitate” (Augustine’s Confessions 1.18). Augustine was battling the same reality of who was worthy to follow. In looking back on his childhood he realizes he sought to follow such men that were examples of the culture, examples of learnedness and wisdom in the art of the Greek and Latin language, men who were praised for their wisdom and intelligence over their character. As a boy he pursued these praises for himself, as an imitator of these “learned” men. As an adult he was struck that these men were not to be the ones we are called to follow, men who lead others into seeking their own glory.

The world beckons us to follow these “learned” men. The world tells us to seek after fame and popularity, for this is where real meaning lies. The world says we are to be New York Times Bestsellers, world renowned athletes, country altering politicians, billionaire financial moguls, and even mega church pastors. And it says the way to become these, to assent to this magnanimity in life is to follow their “do whatever it takes to get ahead” example. The world wants us to follow those in the world who have “amounted to something.” These are our culture’s “learned men” that Augustine sought to imitate. But we must be careful who we follow.

Who Then Shall We Follow?
There are however people worth following with our lives. These people aren’t simply those who live not simply for self gain and fame. The people we are called to follow are themselves people who follow one individual, Jesus Christ. In Mark 8:34 we see the fundamental calling that constitutes a Christian is to follow: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” To be a Christian, to be a disciple of Christ, is fundamentally to be a Christ follower. Christ has lived a perfect life and gifted to us His righteousness since we cannot attain perfection ourselves. However this does not give us license to live as one who does not follow Christ, as one seeking to live according to God’s will. We must be careful that it is Christ we follow as Christians.

While Christ is our ultimate example of who we are to imitate with our lives, God has also provided other examples. Paul commends to Corinth in 1 Corinthians 11:1: Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” There are Christian leaders who lead us and encourage us as we follow Christ in this life. It is precisely because these leaders lead us towards to one individual that we are called to imitate perfectly that we can be sure that they are wise to follow. When a leader shows by his life that it is Christ he follows, then we can learn a lot about what it means to be a Christian. We are not in this alone. We are called to follow.

Our Charge to Follow
And so we are left with a charge from Hebrews 13:7: Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” The author of Hebrews charges each and every Christian to follow those leaders who, by their life, reflect the calling of the Christian: to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Be careful that the persons you follow are not following the way of the world, the way of fame and popularity. But instead be careful that who you follow is the kind of leader that leads you to Jesus and be careful that you lead people not to vain glory, but to glory in the one in whom nothing is vain. Soli Deo Gloria.

Thoughts From the First Month as “Pastor JT”

IMG_2643My first month as a newly minted pastor has come to a close. This milestone will never happen again. I will never again be startled when someone calls me “Pastor JT.” I will never again preach my first sermon to my new church. The calling to be a pastor began before this heart beat for the first time in my mother’s womb, before I was transformed by the love of Jesus, and before I ever thought of attending seminary. What took many long years of discernment has finally come to fruition this last month. It has been a joyfully exhausting month of trying to remember names, getting adjusted to a ministry workweek (no such thing as 40 hours, 9-5), and growing my heart in love for  the people God has placed in my shepherding care. This past month has easily been a highlight of my life. Thank you Lord.

In the midst of trying to keep my head on straight I have reflected on four things that the Lord has sought fit to impress upon me as a fresh out of seminary pastor:

Prioritization Is Essential
If I have learned one thing above them all this last month it is the essential task of being able to prioritize your schedule. If you don’t decide what you are going to spend your time on then other people and distractions will decide that task for you. An open door policy is great, but an open door also can hijack your daily priorities. I am learning how to schedule the day so that there is some built in open door time when people need to talk. The pastor must prioritize time for the people he is called to shepherd and he must also prioritize time for study and communion with God so that he is able to lead well. The Christian Post wrote a helpful article on how to prioritize study time. The pastor also needs to prioritize non church time, i.e. time with family, time to exercise, time with friends. If these are not a priority the work in the office will consume your schedule.

Created To Be Called
Reflecting on the month I have repented that I ever doubted that God knew what He was up to with my life. There were many moments over the past years (particularly in seminary) when I had no idea where God was calling me. In hindsight this blurry judgment on my own part was completely unfounded. How could the sovereign God who acts providentially in all of creation let me dangle to and fro in my own direction for my life. He didn’t. He knew all along who he was molding and forming and He knew all along the people He was calling me to shepherd, the beautiful sheep of Bellevue Evangelical Presbyterian Church. I was created by God to be a pastor. I was created by God to trust Him in His calling. Like Job and Habakkuk I now have the confidence to trust God’s sovereign hand.

Necessity of the Scriptures
The busyness of the first month has impressed upon me the scary reality of how easy it has been to put aside Scripture for personal study and instead use it simply as a ministry tool. It’s the same principle at work in seminary, that the Bible can become a textbook void of life if you let it. Just because you are a pastor doesn’t mean that the Scriptures are instantly devoured. We are human, not superhuman. This possibility of neglecting the Scriptures scared me and has Lord willing set me on a path of devouring the Word of God as a Christian is called to do.

Live to Please God, Not Men
Lastly, this first month has revealed the odd feeling of being on display for the community and church to see. They have called a new pastor and for much of this month people have been forming opinions and relationships regarding me. I have been tempted and even succumbed to by some degree to please people, to try and look like a shiny new golden mouthed preacher. I have been hired but to some degree I felt as though I needed to also prove that they made a good decision. Instead Colossians 3:23-24 needs to be my rallying verse to live this life to please God, not men:

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ

At the end of the month I rest in the reality that God knows what He is doing. He has called me prior to Bellevue to be their pastor. My work as a pastor is for His glory and His mission. Soli Deo Gloria.

Our Only Hope: Funeral Sermon

I had the wonderful privilege of taking Jim Singleton’s Pastoral Ministry course this semester at Gordon-Conwell. As a Th.M. student in Homiletics I wasn’t supposed to take anything outside my field, but I convinced my advisor that this class was a good idea for me in preparation for pastoral ministry. It was a true gem of a course.

As a Th.M. student I had some extra requirements to fulfill to elevate the M.Div. level course to Th.M. caliber. One of these requirements was to preach a funeral sermon to the class as an example for us to assess and talk about in the context of death in the church. I have yet to do a funeral so this was great practice for thinking about the importance of the message and what word of hope could be offered to those who are present.