Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Celebrating the Reformation: Returning to God's Word


It was 1517, exactly 500 years ago during this month of October.

Through neglect of the Word of God, the western church, which was centered in Rome, had by and large fallen into grave error and abuse.

Though there were always pockets of true Bible-believers, over the course of several hundred years, Christendom had drifted into a man-centered, God-dishonoring, unbiblical mess.

The church was no longer looked on as the body of Christ, here to serve and help others, but rather it had become the dominant hierarchical power structure of western society.

The Roman Catholic Church dominated all other power structures, and whatever the Pope said was by very definition true.

Popes claimed infallibility, and fought with other would-be popes along with kings of other countries over the right to exercise supreme authority.

One was not permitted to dissent, and if you did, you could quite easily be burned at the stake.

And many were.

The pope alone had the “correct” interpretation of Scripture, and Church councils and the ongoing traditions of men held more sway than the Bible.

Driven less by God's Word and more by an increasing greed for money and a lust for power, a great many church leaders were no longer Christian at all.

Men could buy their status as bishops and church leaders.

Masses of poor people were urged to buy forgiveness of sins for themselves and for their dead loved ones through the sale of expensive church indulgences.

And, according to Roman Catholic law, translating the Bible into a vulgar, common language such as English was a heresy punishable by death.

The few Latin Bibles, which the average person could not read, were themselves literally chained to the pulpits so that the common person had no access to them.

Every service or mass was in Latin too, so that most could not even understand what was being said!

Can you imagine why a church would want to keep God’s Word from the people?

Possibly it was so that its leaders could keep power over the people.

Many leaders wanted to hold for themselves the authority that only God should hold.

Well, into this milieu, a disillusioned young priest named Martin Luther started an uproar one October day.

It wasn't as if he was aiming to change the world, but by his actions that day, he started a chain of effects that God would indeed use to change the world.

On October 31, exactly 500 years ago, Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenburg, Germany, pressing for reform in the church that he loved.

At first these 95 Theses were meant simply for discussion among the other academics in Wittenburg, where Luther taught theology.

But because of the newly invented printing press, Luther's questions over the abuses of the Church were soon spread all over Europe by others.

As Luther studied the Greek New Testament, he was relieved to finally learn that people are not saved by doing good works or by keeping the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church.

In his study of Romans he saw that we all are sinners before God and have no hope of salvation from hell unless God intervenes and gives us His own righteousness.

Through Christ Jesus, God has intervened and rescues us and brings us to heaven, not based on our goodness or righteousness, but because of His grace, love, and righteousness alone.

People suffer when falsehood abounds; and during this time many suffered greatly.

Like Martin Luther once had, many viewed God as an angry, righteous judge who one could never quite please, no matter what they did.

But then in the pages of the Greek New Testament, in the book of Romans, Martin found the key to happiness plainly revealed.

In his own words the secret to happiness was this:  

Sinful, failing, broken people like us “are not loved because they are attractive, they are attractive because they are loved.”

In other words, God does not go looking for good people to save, because there are none.

He loves us already and by His great love, in Jesus Christ, we are made lovely by Him.

And by Christ’s work on the cross, God can be at the same time perfectly just and perfectly gracious toward us.

Because of Christ’s death on our behalf it is possible for the worst sinner to be fully loved and accepted and forever forgiven through faith in Him.

As we receive Jesus and His work on the cross, God begins to radically change our hearts through that free gift of love and forgiveness.

But by teaching what the Bible says — that we are justified or made righteous before God by faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross alone — Luther was labeled a heretic.

He was ordered to recant, but thankfully, though his life was in great danger, he did not recant.

In his famous speech, before a crowd at a hearing in Worms, Germany, he declared, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God... I cannot recant. Here I stand, I can do no other.”

And today we call Protestants all who follow the clear teaching of God’s Word in regards to the free gift of salvation, and therefore protest against the abuse of man-centered authority.

Protestants had one goal: that God and His Word would be our final authority, and that as it teaches, God’s glory and not human goodness would be supreme in the hearts of His people.

So today and next week, we want to slow down to celebrate God's work in the Reformation.

Sadly the majority of the doctrinal errors the early Protestants protested against still persist today in the Roman Catholic Church.

But even in Protestant churches, many do not read or know their Bibles well.

Though our lives are not threatened, we leave God’s Word on the shelf day after day, and we also suffer because of our ignorance of the truth.

So let’s continue on in the work of the Reformers, coming back to God’s Word and being used of God to bring others to the truth which alone can bring true freedom and lasting happiness.

In John 8:31-32, Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

So this isn’t just an issue from the past, but as Jesus says, what we do with God’s Word will determine the freedom and joy we live with today, and it will set our course for heaven.

500 years ago there began a Reformation which was to spread to every country in Europe, and today to every country in the world, bringing people back to the Word of God.

This Reformation was not a revolution, because it was not about starting something new.

Rather, it was a Restoration.

It was about bringing the church back to it origins, back to the pillar and foundation of truth: which is God's Word alone.

The church should always be reforming, we should always be going back to God's revelation in the Bible as opposed to creating new man-made doctrines or seeking further revelation.

It is interesting to note that when the apostle Peter spoke of the wondrous things he saw on the Mount of Transfiguration, he said this in 2 Peter 1:18:

we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.

But rather than urging people to seek similar supernatural experiences, he urged them to pay attention to a more fully confirmed testimony: the Scriptures, which were for all mankind.

As the next verse says,  “And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, (2 Peter 1:19)

Only through His Word does God continue to give light to our hearts and change us.

Knowing this, Luther, Hus, Wycliffe, and a myriad of other early Reformers committed themselves to making the Word of God available to the average person.

And for many of the Reformers, it cost them their lives.

So let’s not forget the price that has been paid so that each of us today can freely enjoy reading God's own Words in our own mother language! It is an unimaginable privilege.

God's Word is a precious gift beyond all things, and we should cherish it and meditate on it daily.

It is our light, our daily bread, and life-giving water to satisfy our thirsty souls.

As Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)

Like food, we should live by the Word and enjoy it daily, or we will slowly die spiritually without it.

But it doesn’t just nourish us like food, but like a sword it protects us from the lies of the evil one.

When Jesus was confronted with the temptation of Satan in the wilderness, He did not resort to shooting laser beams from his eyes.

Rather, three times His weapon of choice was the Word of God, as He quoted the truth that alone would dispel the deceptions of Satan.

The Reformers likewise taught Sola Scriptura, that is that Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our only inerrant, fully-sufficient, and final authority.

As Luther believed so emphatically, since church councils and popes have often erred, they cannot possess an authority equal to Scripture, but rather they must submit to it.

Any authority outside of Scripture is contingent only upon its faithfulness to the biblical text, which alone is inspired by God and inerrant.

So let’s continue this morning by looking briefly at the authority of the Scriptures as our chief foundation for all matters of teaching and instruction in the truth.

Then let’s draw out implications about what that means for our daily lives today.

Part and parcel to the authority of the Scriptures is that God's Word is fully inspired by Him, even down to the exact Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic words that were chosen.

As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says,All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

The inspiration of Scripture refers to that act whereby the Holy Spirit came upon the authors of Scripture, causing them to write exactly what God intended,

And this while simultaneously preserving each author’s writing style and personality.

This supernatural work of the Holy Spirit upon the human authors means that the author’s words are God’s words and therefore are fully reliable, trustworthy, and authoritative.

As Proverbs 30:5 says, “Every word of God proves true; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him.”

This Word is free from error and untruths because there can be no errors in His speech.

God is holy and is ignorant of nothing, therefore His Word can be neither deceitful nor ignorant.

The recipient’s mind was not a barrier to the process, but was the very means God used to reveal His Word.

2 Peter 1:21 says, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

So yes, men wrote the Bible, and yet it was not produced by their own wills alone, but by God's sovereign will working in them in the power of His Holy Spirit.

This is why we see such a unity and cohesiveness to the Bible, even though it was written over a period of 1,500 years using three languages and over 40 human authors.

And if you and I read the Bible today, truly seeking for God, we will begin to see just how amazing and unified God’s Word is also. It truly cannot be a work of men alone.

Jesus believed this also.

He said in Matthew 5:17-18, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

The Law and the Prophets, was another name for the entire Old Testament. All of which Jesus is saying has lasting authority and is exactly right and is not to be abolished.

Because of the great amount of prophecy and foreshadowing of Christ, it must be accomplished or fulfilled in Him, and by and large, and in amazing ways it already has been.

But really how exact is it?

Jesus said that it is correct even down to the smallest marks in Greek, the iota and the dot.

According to Jesus, not only is it correct generally, but it is all God’s Word, not just the main stories or lessons, but every single part and every single word used.

For example, we see this when Jesus is talking to the Pharisees about marriage in Matthew 19:3.

And Pharisees came up to Him and tested Him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:3-6)

In verse 4, Jesus refers to the account of creation from Genesis and then in verse 5 quotes Genesis 2:24. But if you go back to this verse in Genesis you find something surprising.

This is not a direct quote from God, in fact it is not a quote from anyone, there is no unique voice attributed to it in Genesis; it is just a verse in Scripture.

And yet look again at Matthew 19:4, He answered, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said,

Who said? The same subject. He, who created them from the beginning, said.

What did the Creator say? "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh."

Therefore, Jesus understood, just as the Jews of this day did, that to quote from the Scriptures was to quote from the Creator God Himself.

Jesus treats all of the Bible, right down to the narrative voice, as God’s own Word.

He often referenced people from the Old Testament to teach with authority.

Adam and Eve, Jonah, the Queen of Sheba, Solomon, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, David, Elijah, Elisha, the widow of Zeraphath, Naaman, and Zechariah.

And He never questions a single story, a single miracle, or a single historical claim, but treats them all as fact and as authoritative.

In Matthew 12:39-41, Jesus said this, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”

If the story of Jonah and the whale was just a good story and not actual history, Jesus would not have told the people that the men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment to condemn them.

That would be like me preaching at church that if you do not repent someday Superman and all the people from the planet Krypton will come and condemn you. - It would be silly and useless!

But the people, as well as Jesus, knew the facts of history well, that Jonah was an actual prophet who went to Nineveh, and that he had in fact been swallowed by a whale.

And that is why Jesus said six times to the Pharisees and religious leaders, “Have you not read…” as He referred them to the Scriptures they supposedly believed in.

He implied that if these religious leaders had read and learned the Scriptures well, they would not have the wrong thinking and false beliefs they presently had.

As Jesus said in John 10:35, “Scripture cannot be broken”,

meaning God will not allow Scripture, in its original to be unbound, altered, or annulled until it is completely fulfilled.

Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” (Lk. 21:33)

And this why He, as well as the apostles constantly reasoned from the Scriptures, even from the New Testament Scriptures, as they preached the gospel to others.

And that is why we do the same here at Chapel.

We make no excuses for the parts of the Bible that some people scoff at, but, instead, preach it and teach it for what it is, the inspired Word of our Creator God.

Now, there is a very old illustration that maybe you have heard of before.

It is sometimes used to describe how all religions and views of God have inherent flaws.

It says that all people are blind and are touching different parts of the truth, much as blind people would touch an elephant.

Some touch the side of the elephant and think that it is a wall.

Others touch the trunk and think that it a snake.

Others touch an ear and think it is a fan.

But I hope you see two colossal problems with this thinking.

One is that the analogy assumes that the one telling it can see the whole picture, that only he or she is not blind and knows all truth as compared to everyone else.

But the other problem is even bigger and more important.

The whole analogy breaks down if the elephant speaks!

If the elephant suddenly says, “Excuse me, I’m not a wall, I’m an elephant!”

Everything changes and all of the excuses we make to claim that we cannot know the truth end when the elephant speaks!

And God has spoken clearly through His Word, so that none of us have an excuse before God.

First, God speaks daily through the amazing things that He has made, so that we have no excuse for ignoring our Creator.

But sin has separated our hearts from Him, and even though we know He is there, left to ourselves, we do not wish to seek for Him.

This is why God sent Jesus, to rescue us and, in great love, to reconcile us to God.

And He has given us His Word so that we can know Him personally, by His help.

Finally, let us look into the implications of what it means for our daily lives that God has given us His Word and wants us to know Him.

Let’s go back to John 8:31-32.

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Many, like the Jews in this passage, say they believe, but unless we begin to love His Word and live in it, we do not show ourselves to be His true disciples.

But because we know His great love and have found the secret of true happiness in His free acceptance and love in Christ, we desire to be with Him and to know Him more!

The more we get to know Him, and the more we receive His grace and truth in Christ Jesus, the more we show ourselves to be His true disciples who have truly been born again.

And the more we abide in His truth, the more we can enjoy the freedom of living in the truth.

We cannot say that we love another person and then continually ignore what they say.

A person’s words and actions reflect who they really are.

And so no true disciple of their Lord and Savior disregards His Word.

Our hearts have been changed by Him and we want to know Him more!

But here is the practical implication for us today: If you and I want to know Jesus more, we must know Him through His Word.

That is why Jesus says not only to abide in His Word, but to abide in Him!

Jesus says in John 15, “Abide in Me… Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in Me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (Jn 15:4–7)

One of the most important convictions that we can ever come to is that Jesus is a real and precious Person that we can know personally and closely through His Word.

Through prayer, obedience, and suffering our experience of His presence in our lives deepens and grows, but through it all, He most clearly reveals Himself to us through His Word.

As we seek to know Him through His Word, He draws us close to Himself and we become more like Him.

Finally, what does it mean to abide?

In short, to abide means to remain to stay and live there.

How do you live in God’s Word? How do you live with Christ daily?

First, we are persuaded by God that His Word is true as we read it for ourselves.

Next, we begin to believe that God knows the most important things that we need to know, chiefly that to know Him is more important than anything else in the universe.

To abide means that we then seek to know and enjoy His beauty and goodness more than the fading things of this world.

To abide means we continue to seek Him for the peace we need, because He is our peace, as Eph. 2:14 says.

We seek Him to fill and satisfy our hearts, because we have experienced that only He can fully satisfy us forever.

Finally, to abide means that we seek Him as our light.

To guide us and to help us find the truth and the wisdom we need to live each day.

He is the light of the world, and by His light we can find our way through this dark world.

So let us abide in Him by abiding in His Word each day.

And let us keep coming back to the authority of His Word, as a church as well, as we preach and as we teach Sunday school, and as we try to help other people know Him.

And let us bow before Him daily and realize that He has the words of eternal life that will guide us into everything we need, both and now and forever.

If you have a hard time fitting Bible reading into your busy schedule, let me just encourage you to do it first thing each day.

If God is  first in your heart, you want His thoughts to guide you throughout the day, and so it makes sense to set some time aside time to read each morning.

In college I had a habit of reading the newspaper before I got ready for school.

Someone told me, if you have time to read the news but no time to read the Bible, it shows that you really value the newspaper over the Bible.

That was convicting to me.

I resolved to put the Bible before the news and let my interest in the news be met at another time during the day.

Whatever you put before the Bible in your morning, I encourage you to pray about it and think again about putting God and His Word as the chief priority in your day.

It will change you, and it will change us corporately as a church.

Let us pray.