Wisdom From Our Church Fathers

The Danger of Centralized Authority

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 This concept of authority as something that causes another person to “do what you want him to do” is reflected in most definitions. For instance, the Random House Dictionary of the English Language speaks of authority as “a power or right to direct the actions or thoughts of others. Authority is a power or right, usually because of rank or office, to issue commands and to punish for violations.” Again, the root idea seems to be control or direction of the actions of others.

We see this same idea even in sophisticated examinations of authority. For instance, William Oncken, Jr., in a 1970 Colorado Institute of Technology Journal, gives an analysis of authority that suggests it is composed of four elements, but for the purpose of brevity, we will only include one.

The Authority of Position: This component gives you the right to tell someone, “Do it or else.” It has teeth. “The boss wants it” is a bugle call that can snap many an office or shop into action. -William Oncken, Jr., Colorado Institute of Technology Journal 22, July 1970, p. 273.

The second wall that Luther attacks in his 1520 Letter to the Christian Nobility deal with the issue of authority.  In Luther’s words, “The second wall is still more flimsy and worthless. They wish to be the only Masters of The Holy Scriptures, even though in all their lives they learn nothing from them. They assume for themselves sole authority, and with the insolent juggling of words they would persuade us that the pope, whether he is a bad man or a good man, cannot err in matters of faith, and yet they cannot prove a single letter of it.”

Luther’s argument: Quoting from St. Paul in I Corinthians 14:30: “If to anyone something better is revealed, though he be sitting and listening to another in God’s Word, then the first, who is speaking, shall hold his peace and give place.” What would be the use of this commandment if we were only to believe him who does the talking or who has the highest seat? Christ also says in John 6:45 that all Christians shall be taught of God. Thus, it may well happen that the pope and his followers are wicked men, and no true Christians, not taught of God, not having true understanding. On the other hand, an ordinary man may have true understanding; why then should we not follow him? Has not the pope erred many times? Who would help Christendom when the pope errs if we were not to believe another, who had the Scriptures on his side, more than the pope?  Therefore, it is a wickedly invented fable, and they cannot produce a letter in defense of it, that the interpretation of Scripture or the confirmation of its interpretation belongs to the pope alone.

There is a real and present danger when anyone pastor or church leader believe they are without error.  And it is very tempting in life to surround ourselves with people who will agree with our every decision.  No one likes conflict, nor naysayers, nor people who refuse to follow our lead, but the danger of not having people around who will correct our errors is that we may lead people right out of the arms of grace and into a life of rules and requirements.  Paul expressed that concern in Galatians 3:1-4, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?”

To keep the masses in line a leader will impose man-made rules that lead people away from God’s amazing grace.  Leaders need people around them to hold them accountable, not just to do what is right and wrong but to the truth of God’s word. So, to one whom God has given the responsibility to care for His flock, be watchful of the lure of supreme authority.  Only God is without error, cling to His Word, and allow the truth of Scripture to be your guide.

 

 

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Wisdom From Our Church Fathers

Is the Church’s Authority Over​ the State?

Gavel and Justice.
Wooden gavel and American flag with room for your type.

This series is based on the work of Dr. Martin Luther in a 1520 Letter to the Christian nobility.  In that pamphlet, Luther warns of dangers of church leadership that has so much power and influence it is above reproach and reform.  You may have seen this in your church or your church body.  A charismatic leader rises to power, or a small group of leaders reaches a point where they have gained influence of the masses and then claim supreme authority.  The Roman Catholic church in Luther’s time had achieved this point.  In 1500 the Roman Catholic Church was all powerful in western Europe. There was no legal alternative. Having reached this point, the Catholic Church oppressively guarded its position and anybody who they deemed a threat to the Church was labeled a heretic and burnt at stake. The Catholic Church did not tolerate any deviance from its teachings as any appearance of ‘compromise’ might have been interpreted as a sign of weakness which would be exploited.

To address this dangerous culture Luther attack the church on three fronts.  In this post, we will study the first one.

Luther’s First Attack: The secular authorities have made decrees saying that the temporal power has no jurisdiction over the church, but, nor is the spiritual above the temporal power.

Luther’s argument: It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests, and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy.  To make it still clearer. If a little group of pious Christian laymen were taken captive and set down in a wilderness, and had among them no priest consecrated by a bishop, and if there in the wilderness they were to agree in choosing one of themselves, married or unmarried, and were to charge him with the office of baptizing, saying mass, absolving and preaching, such a man would be as truly a priest as though all bishops and popes had consecrated him. That is why in cases of necessity anyone can baptize and give absolution, which would be impossible unless we were all priests.

Luther’s point was that the Pope, priests, and bishops who called themselves “spiritual” as a way to place themselves above the ordinary people in the pews did not differ from other Christians. Their calling, their vocation did not make them superior to the people they were called to serve.  The only distinction is they were charged with the administration of the Word of God and the sacraments, which is their work and office.  Their work while vital is not a higher work than the farmer, or the banker, or the school teacher, or the mechanic.  Each person has a vocation, a mission, that must benefit and serve the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community.

Luther quotes these verses from Paul and Peter.  Roman 13:1, 4 “Let every soul (I take that to mean the pope’s soul also) be subject unto the higher powers; for they bear not the sword in vain, but are the ministers of God for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.” 1 Peter 2:13, 15 “Submit yourselves unto every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, for so is the will of God.”

Each of us is called, as members of one body, to serve one another, none is above the other, but we all have an important role in the body of Christ.

 

 

Devotional Message

The 500th Anniversary of Reformation: It’s All About Grace!

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Today, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It was a world-shattering movement that began with Dr. Martin Luther and his 1517 work The Ninety-Five Theses.

Here is the reformation summarized by former Synod President Gerald Kieschnick.

  • In the late 15th century the Catholic Church was afflicted by internal corruption.
    • The sale of “indulgences” raised money to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
    • Indulgences made people believe deceased loved ones could be released from purgatory.
    • The slogan was: “When a coin in the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory springs.”
    • Onto this scene arrived a troubled man named Martin Luther.
    • Luther saw God as a God of justice and was tormented by unforgiven guilt and sin.
    • In a thunderstorm during which Luther’s traveling companion was killed by a bolt of lightning, Luther exclaimed, “Save me, St. Anne. I will become a monk!”
    • He survived, became a monk, but could find no peace with God through his own effort.
    • Luther’s discovery of God’s grace came primarily from Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
    • What happened next was an act of courage, motivated by what Luther had discovered.
    • He boldly spoke biblical truth to the church’s power by posting his 95 theses, intended as an invitation for a debate on topics of faith and church practice.
    • Pressure was placed on him to retract his criticism of church belief and practice.
    • He refused to do so and was threatened with excommunication from the Catholic Church.
    • Asked to retract his writings, Luther simply stated: “Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason, for I do not accept the authority of popes and councils because they have contradicted each other, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot, and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
    • Ultimately, Luther was excommunicated for refusing to retract his beliefs.

Luther began by criticizing the selling of indulgences. That transaction on the surface sounds like an excellent idea for the sinner. You get to buy forgiveness for an act you are going to commit or have committed. Luther was also insisting that the Pope had no authority over purgatory, which I would describe as a spiritual waiting room. The Catholic Catechism teaches that in purgatory one “undergoes purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven”[1]

The Catholic doctrine of the merits of the saints was another major sticking point as it had no foundation in the gospel. The Protestant position, yet, would come to incorporate other critical doctrinal changes such as sola scriptura (scripture alone). Scripture alone is the belief that God’s word as contained in the Bible has supreme authority in all matters of doctrine and practice. Every other writing is secondary.

And Sola Fide (faith alone). Faith alone is the key to the foundation of our Christian faith. We believe and confess that God’s pardon for guilty sinners is granted and received through faith alone, and not based on good works.

The movement started by this monk is still a vital change today. God continues to bring new people to faith and transform the lives of His followers.  Today I want to cover two major points with you. God used this colossal shift in Luther’s understanding of how God operates to transform Luther and thus transform God’s Church.

The Weight of God vs. the Grace of God.

You can hear in Luther’s words just how deeply Luther felt the weight of God. How deeply he was tormented by his sins, and how that sin weighs on the heart of the sinner.

“Though I lived as a religious leader without reproach, I felt, with the most disturbed conscience imaginable, that I was a sinner before God. I did not love. Indeed, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.” Dr. Martin Luther

The quote points to just how deeply Luther felt conflicted with God. How Luther was keenly aware of his sinfulness and the impact of God’s judgment on him for his sins. According to the Roman Catholic Church, Christians had to earn the merits of Jesus’ forgiveness. Nothing was free. Christ’s death for them was only a starting point; there was much more the sinner needed to do to achieve salvation. That need to earn forgiveness that idea that Christ is not enough left many good faithful Christians feeling the weight of being inadequate.

You can hear Paul’s frustration with the Galatians who were so readily abandoning the biblical foundation of grace. The Galatians like Luther was falling prey to the trap of looking to be saved based on their good deeds.

“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?” Gal 3:1-4

When we approach the throne of God with only our good works to offer as a sacrifice, we quickly realize just how inadequate that appears before a perfect God. To offer our pitiful gifts to the God who created the Universe seems quite small. So, Christians were never confident they ever could work off all their sins.

Deep down the human heart knows that we are born in sin and have no legitimate way to earn the forgiveness of those sins. The frustration that humanity has when attempting to obtain favor with God through works is the feeling of being mistreated. Unfair treatment angers a lot of people, especially people like Luther who desperately want to play by the rules.

The Roman Catholic teaching struck a much more profound chord in Luther. It is part of human nature to long for the attention and praise of our fathers. This same desire extends to our Heavenly Father as well. According to the Church, Luther could never be sure he would receive that acceptance and love of the Heavenly Father.

The Grace of God.

The weight of God leads Luther to discover the grace of God. When Luther was hopeless, God opened the Scriptures to show him he was saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ. Luther came to understand, Jesus restored him to a right relationship with God. In this connection, Luther was unconditionally accepted by the Father. And the beauty of the message of Jesus is so are we.

Hear Paul’s words to the Ephesians,

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— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace, you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works so that no one may boast.[1] Eph 2:4-9

Here is a moving illustration to explain God’s grace. An old Indian, after living many years in sin, was led to Christ by a missionary. Friends asked him to explain the change in his life. Reaching down, he picked up a little worm and placed it on a pile of leaves. Then, touching a match to the leaves, he watched them smolder and burst into flames. As the flames worked their way up to the center where the worm lay, the old chief suddenly plunged his hand into the center of the burning pile and snatched out the worm. Holding the worm gently in his hand, he gave this testimony to the grace of God: “Me. . . that worm.”[2]

Forgiveness should be a straightforward concept, but it wages war against all mortal reason.  Why would anyone give us anything for free?  Something we didn’t earn, or buy or barter?  God offers us forgiveness before we ask for it.  In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he lays out this grand image of the nature of God.

“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— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,…”  Ephesians 2:4-6

God has an everlasting desire to keep us with Him for all eternity. The Almighty, knowing our weakness created a plan to rescue us from sin that was entirely independent of any efforts on our part.  Thank God, we are not saved by the good things we do and fall from grace by the bad things we do.  If that was the merit system, we were working under we would all be lost. God’s grace means salvation is completely apart from any virtue we may think we have garnered. Grace says that Jesus did it all for our sakes! Our salvation is a free gift of God.

So, if the Father of Lies, Satan, is trying to convince you that you are not worthy of God’s love, well you are not, and neither am I.  But we are worthy of God’s grace, not because of what we may do but because of what Jesus DID for us on the cross.  Jesus gave up His life so that God “…might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 2:7

God loves us so genuinely that He sent His son Jesus Christ to reach into the fires of hell and pull us out. He values our relationship so much that God will not be satisfied with a surface connection. God desires to draw all people to himself for eternity. God sent Jesus to bring back all the lost sheep into the Fathers sheepfold.  People matter to God. You matter to God!

If you are feeling lost or are experiencing a sense of confusion and “disconnectedness” in life, Jesus the Good Shepherd is seeking you. Jesus will not stop searching and with relentless grace won’t end until He finds you.

If your spirits are down, if you are feeling a sense of hopelessness, or if you are searching for joy, the God of comfort and life wants to connect with you. You can stop running away from Him and instead return to Him. He is waiting there for you with open and forgiving arms. Move into the waiting arms of your Savior the Good Shepherd. It is there that you will find the desires of your heart.

All people matter to God. All people are equally important to God. We have not only been found, but we are also redeemed. We are loved!

If you, like Luther, are feeling the full weight of God in your life, know that Jesus took that pressure to Calvary’s cross on your behalf. If you still think that something in your past is too big even for Jesus to forgive, know that nothing is too big that the blood of Jesus will not cover.

Here is an interesting Reformation you may not know about Luther’s dream church and it’s not European.  Read the link below:

http://religionnews.com/2017/10/28/martin-luthers-dream-church-it-wasnt-in-europe/