Archive for October, 2017

The Reformation of the Church

Luther95theses

Credit: Ferdinand Pauwels, 1872

Tomorrow, many corners of the Christian Church will mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  And though the Reformation of the Church was larger than any one event and any one man, the beginning of this grand theological and historical watershed is traditionally traced to October 31, 1517, when an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, outlining his grievances against some of the abuses that were rampant in the Roman Catholic Church of his day.

At the heart of Luther’s protest was the Church’s sale of indulgences.  Indeed, in his 95 theses, Luther uses the word “indulgence” some 45 times!  An indulgence was a partial remission of punishment for sin, issued by the Church, and could be used either to lessen a person’s future penalties in purgatory, or to shorten a deceased loved one’s current intermediate period in purgatory.   Indulgences took both the form of personal good works, such as pilgrimages and acts of devotion, as well as the form of a payment to the Church by which, it was said, one could have some of the good works of one of the Church’s canonized saints imputed to him to counterbalance his sin.

In Luther’s day, a preacher named Johann Tetzel shamelessly peddled the second type of indulgence, claiming that paying for an indulgence could breezily and easily excuse a sin for which one would otherwise have to suffer terribly in purgatory.  With clownish flamboyance, he declared:

Consider, that for each and every mortal sin it is necessary to undergo seven years of penitence after confession and contrition, either in this life or in purgatory.

How many mortal sins are committed in a day, how many in a week, how many in a month, how many in a year, how many in the whole extent of life! They are well-nigh numberless, and those that commit them must needs suffer endless punishment in the burning pains of purgatory.

But with these confessional letters you will be able at any time in life to obtain full indulgence for all penalties imposed upon you …

Are you not willing, then, for the fourth part of a florin, to obtain these letters, by virtue of which you may bring, not your money, but your divine and immortal soul, safe and sound into the land of paradise?

According to Tetzel, one sin buys a person seven years of suffering in purgatory.  If a person commits only one sin a day, which, according to Tetzel himself, who invites his hearers to ponder “how many mortal sins are committed in a day,” is an unrealistic underestimation, this would mean that, for one year’s worth of sins, a person would spend 2,555 years in purgatory.  If a person lived to be 75, they would have to endure 191,625 years of suffering in purgatory.  But, Tetzel continues, “for the fourth part of a florin,” one can purchase an indulgence letter, which allows the bearer to “obtain full indulgence for all penalties imposed on you.”  A florin was an Italian gold coin worth around $144 in today’s currency.  A fourth of a florin, then, would be worth around $36.  Thus, Tetzel’s message was this:  for $36, your sins can be taken care of, and you can enter effortlessly into paradise.  What a deal!

The problem with Tetzel’s deal, of course, is that, ultimately, he cheapened both the penalty and the payment for sin.  As harrowing as 191,625 years in purgatory may sound, the true penalty for sin is even more terrifying, for it is not a finite time in purgatory, but an infinite eternity in hell.  And the true payment for sin that rescues us from this eternity in hell is certainly more than a measly $36.  The true payment for sin is nothing short of priceless.  As God says through the prophet Isaiah, “Without money you will be redeemed” (Isaiah 52:3).  The true payment for sin is nothing less than the priceless blood of Christ.

The truth Luther rediscovered is that the penalty for sin is much steeper and the payment for sin is much deeper than an indulgence preacher like Johann Tetzel ever let on.  And this is the truth that launched a reformation of the Church.

Tetzel passed away in 1519, only two short years after the Reformation began.  By this time his ministry had been discredited, and he had been accused of fathering an illegitimate child.  When Luther heard that Tetzel was near death, he wrote his old theological sparring partner a kind note, begging him “not to be troubled, for the matter did not begin on his account, but the child had quite a different father.”

Luther was known for preaching grace as a theologian.  It turns out that, for all his protestations against and sometimes harsh critiques of the Catholic Church of his day, at times, he was also gracious as a person.  And grace is better than any indulgence.  This was Luther’s message – and, most importantly, this is the gospel message.  And that’s a message worth celebrating, which is why the Reformation is worth celebrating, even 500 years later.

“Indulgences are in truth the most insignificant graces when compared with the grace of God and the piety of the cross.” (Martin Luther)

Advertisements

October 30, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

ISIS Takes a Tumble

ISIS’s caliphate has fallen.

This is the news that broke last week when the Syrian Democratic Forces, who are backed by the U.S., finally broke the terrorist group’s last metropolitan stronghold in Raqqa.  The New York Times reports that:

Celebrations erupted in Raqqa, where residents had lived under the repressive rule of militants who beheaded people for offenses as minor as smoking. Fighters could be seen cheering and firing celebratory gunfire in the streets, according to residents reached by phone and text message.

One video shows a woman ripping off her burqa and chanting joyfully, overcome with emotion that her city has been liberated.

Even with this victory, Raqqa is still a plenty dangerous place.  ISIS still probably has suicide bombers in hiding waiting to launch attacks.  The terrorist group has also booby-trapped many areas with improvised explosive devices.  Moreover, the city of Raqqa itself has been devastated.  The New York Times published another article featuring images from cities across Iraq, including Raqqa.  All of them lie in ruins.

Still, this is an important milestone victory against a terrorist group whose territory, at its height in 2014, covered 34,000 square miles in Syria and Iraq and whose tactics against defectors and dissidents were nothing short of gruesomely brutal.  In Paradise Square in the center of Raqqa, later fittingly renamed Hell Square:

Prisoners were tossed from tall buildings, beheaded, lashed or shot while the crowds gathered … Hands and feet were chopped off. Others were stoned to death … Bodies and severed heads were carefully placed around the square by Islamic State militants and would remain there for days. Those who lived and escaped to tell the tale would describe how the bodies were labeled, identifying the victim’s crime in a deliberate warning to others.

Sadly, as chilling as these macabre parades were, we know that, even if scenes like these are in the past for now, they may not be in the past forever.  Wickedness is horrifyingly resilient.  But even if the war against the wickedness of ISIS has not yet been fully won, we can be thankful that a major battle has been.  We can also be thankful that, no matter how brutal a regime may be, we have a perfect Sovereign who, in the words of the prophet Daniel, graciously and often necessarily, “deposes kings and raises up others” (Daniel 2:21).

Daniel’s words about God’s power over world affairs come as he is interpreting a dream for Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.  The king has a dream where he sees his kingdom, the kingdom of Babylon, along with four future kingdoms:  the kingdom of the Medes and the Persians, the kingdom of the Greeks, the kingdom of the Romans, and the kingdom of God.  In his vision, only one kingdom lasts.  Daniel, in his interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s vision, reveals to the king which kingdom will endure:

The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. (Daniel 2:44)

Only the kingdom of God, Daniel says, will endure.  Every other kingdom, including Nebuchadnezzar’s, will fall.

In a world where a kingdom like ISIS’s can have its say, we can be thankful that the kingdom of God will eventually carry the day.  So, as grateful as I am that ISIS’s caliphate is waning, I’m ultimately hopeful for a perfect kingdom that is coming.  For when that kingdom comes on the Last Day, ISIS will not only lose the prospect of further victories like they have now thanks to the brave work of the Syrian Democratic Forces, they’ll lose even their past victories, as the death they have wrought will be swallowed up by the eternal life that Christ, by the cross, has bought.

ISIS has an even bigger loss to come.

October 23, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Against Our Better Judgment

8903961105_689948883f_z (1)

Credit: Dan Mason

Yesterday, in the Bible class I teach at the church where I serve, I made the point that we can be very bad at making appropriate judgments.  We can, at times, judge incorrectly, inconsistently, or even incoherently.  This is why Jesus warns us, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1), and the apostle Paul echoes, “Judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes” (1 Corinthians 4:5).

I also mentioned in my Bible class that hardly better examples of our struggle with making appropriate judgments can be found than in the realm of politics.  When an elected official is not a member of whatever party we prefer, we can sometimes treat them as if they can do no right, even if they have some noble achievements or proposals.  But if a person is a member of our preferred party, we can sometimes treat them as if they can do no wrong, even if they have acted wickedly and inexcusably.  We minimize what they have done simply by pointing to an opposing political ideology that, in our minds, is “even worse.”

In his daily news briefing, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler, brought to my attention two op-ed pieces, both published a week ago Sunday across from each other in the opinion pages of The New York Times.  One was by the left-leaning Jennifer Weiner and titled “The Flagrant Sexual Hypocrisy of Conservative Men.”  The other was by the right-leaning Ross Douthat and titled “The Pigs of Liberalism.”  Here, conveniently divided by the fold in the newspaper, is our political divide laid bare, nestled neatly in newsprint.  Ms. Weiner decried the breathtaking schizophrenia of Representative Tim Murphy, a Republican from Pennsylvania, who, while taking a consistently pro-life stance as a politician and voting for pro-life legislation, quietly encouraged his mistress to get an abortion when she found out she was pregnant.  Mr. Douthat’s piece chronicled the all-around sliminess of Hollywood mogul and liberal icon Harvey Weinstein, who, in a bombshell piece of investigative reporting in The New York Times, was revealed to have harassed and, perhaps, even sexually assaulted dozens of women over the course of decades.

Though both Mr. Murphy and Mr. Weinstein’s actions, because of the egregiousness of their offenses, have been, thankfully, broadly and forcefully denounced regardless of their political commitments, oftentimes, excusing the inexcusable has become par for the course in many of our political debates, particularly, interestingly enough, when it comes to sexual misdeeds.  A desire to see a political ideology defeated can often eclipse a commitment to get some basic ethical principles right.

In one way, this is not surprising.  The Pew Research Center published a report earlier this month on the widening political divides in American life.  Most striking is this chart, which shows just how far apart Republicans and Democrats have drifted – or, as the case may be, run – away from each other ideologically since 1994.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 5.34.29 PMWhen political ideologies become this disparate, it is not surprising that a desire to promote your preferred ideology generally can trump and excuse the public proponents of your ideological stripe when they do not practice your ideological commitments specifically.

So, what is the way through all of our excuses, minimizations, and rationalizations of people who tout a particular political ideology publicly while, at the same time, shirking it personally?  First, we must understand that such instances of hypocrisy are not, at their root, political.  They are spiritual.  A particular political ideology that we don’t like is not our ultimate problem.  Sin is our ultimate problem.  This is why both conservatives and liberals can fall prey to vile sinfulness, as the cases of Mr. Murphy and Mr. Weinstein illustrate.  The titles of the recent op-ed pieces in The New York Times could have just as easily, and perhaps more accurately, been titled “The Flagrant Sexual Hypocrisy of Sinful Men” and “The Pigs of Depravity.”  As long as we pretend that a particular political ideology is a categorical evil to be defeated, we will only fall prey to more evil.  Political ideologies certainly have problems, but they are not, in and of themselves, the ultimate problem.  We are.

Second, we must also be careful not to conclude that because someone espouses a certain ideology while not living up to it, their ideology is ipso facto wrong.  There are many factors that can make an ideology – or an aspect of an ideology – wrong, but a failure to live up to the ideology in question is not necessarily one of them.  A pro-life ideology is still morally right in principle even if Mr. Murphy was wrong in is his actions.  A strong ideology against sexual assault and harassment is still morally right in principle even if Mr. Weinstein was wrong in his failure to live up to this strong ideology.

Third, in a culture that regularly falls short of its values, we must not fall prey to the temptation to indiscriminately shift values to excuse behavior.  Instead, we must call those who espouse certain ideological values to actually live according to them.  In other words, we need to learn how to lovingly judge people’s actions according to rigorous ethical commitments and call people to repentance instead of downplaying and downgrading ethical commitments because we’re desperate to gain or to retain some kind of power.  After all, power without ethical commitments can never be exercised well, no matter which side of the political divide exercises it, because power that is not subject to a higher moral power can, if not held accountable, quickly degenerate into tyranny.

Jesus famously said, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24).  It is time for us to look beyond the surface of our political divides and peer into the character of our culture.  What we find there will probably unsettle us, but it will also call us to some sober reflection and compel us to want something better for ourselves and for our society.  I pray we have the wherewithal for such reflection.

October 16, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Faces of Las Vegas

Mandalay Bay Victims

These are the faces of lives lost.  These are some of the people who went to a country music festival in Las Vegas for a fun night out only to find themselves on the deadly end of a mass murderer’s bullet.  These are mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, coworkers and friends – human beings made in God’s image.

From the moment SWAT officers burst into Stephen Paddock’s hotel room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay, investigators began to ask the question, “Why?”  Why would a man with no ostensible axe to grind or radical ideology to vindicate carry out the largest mass murder in modern American history?  Why would he pick this venue?  Why would he do so without leaving any apparent clues as to his motivation like a manifesto of his grievances or a record for his place in history?  Why?

These are the types of questions that have been the primary drivers of countless news stories over this past week.  And “why” questions are indeed very important, for their answers have the potential of helping prevent another attack like this one.  But they may also be unanswerable.  Indeed, one of the strangest features of this tragedy is that a week has passed and, still, the motive of this man has remained elusive.  So, rather than asking “why?” I want to take a moment to focus on “who.”  Who was it that lost their life a week ago Sunday?

Bill Wolfe Jr. coached youth wrestling and Little League in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania.  He had worked for an engineering firm and was well-known as being fun-loving and “a devoted Christian.”

Candice Bowers was described as a woman who “was so busy taking care of everyone else…that she rarely took time for herself.”  She lived in Garden Grove, California and had recently adopted her two-year-old niece, Ariel.  She also had two older children, ages 20 and 16, and worked as a waitress.

Christopher Roybal was a 28-year-old Navy veteran whose mom was supposed to join him at the concert that night, but before she could meet up with him, shots rang out.  He was medically discharged from the Navy in 2012 after going mostly deaf in his left ear.  He was a man who would graciously watch chick flicks with and for his mom and had the Lord’s Prayer tattooed on his side.  He worked as a fitness trainer in North Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Sandy Casey was a special education teacher in Manhattan Beach, California.  She was engaged and was attending the concert with her fiancé.  The Superintendent of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District described Sandra as “a spectacular teacher who devoted her life to helping some of our most needy students.”

Charleston Hartfield was a Las Vegas police officer and was off-duty when attending the concert.  He was a 34-year-old military veteran who coached youth football.  He published a book titled Memoirs of a Public Servant, detailing his time on the Las Vegas Police Force.  He leaves behind a wife, a son, and a daughter.

These are the names of only five of the victims who lost their lives a week ago Sunday.  58 were murdered in all.  That leaves 53 other names.  53 other faces.  53 other stories.  53 other people.  I would encourage you to take some time to learn more about them.

The questions of “why” will always be, in some sense, unanswerable – even if a motive is discovered and a record of the assailant’s thinking is uncovered.  Shooting up a concert full of innocent people can never be made to make actual sense, even if investigators uncover what made it make sense to the perpetrator.  Sin never leads people to act sanely.  Before sin ever affects our actions, it infiltrates and corrupts our minds.  This is why the questions of “why,” though they may be important to investigators, cannot eclipse the stories of the people who lost their lives.  They matter most.  For they are the reason families are grieving and a nation is reflecting.  May we never become so obsessed with the motive for a crime that we forget about the people hurt – and, sadly, taken – by this crime.

October 9, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Praying for Las Vegas

Waking up this morning to news of the worst mass shooting in modern American history was jarring.  What was supposed to be an evening of fun at an outdoor country music festival at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas melted down into a scene of death and a time of terror when a lone gunman opened fire into the crowd from the 32nd floor of the hotel above.  More than 50 were killed.  Hundreds are injured.

This morning, stories of heroism are already emerging.  On NBC’s Today, an eyewitness described police officers and military trained personnel standing up during the shooting while everyone else was crouching down, looking for the injured so that they could render immediate aid.  These brave souls put their own lives at risk for the sake of those who were in danger of losing theirs.

Certainly, this will be a story that dominates our headlines and, in one way or another, messes with our heads and hearts.  It is difficult to fathom how evil could move someone to commit an indiscriminate act of mass murder like this.  It is chilling to imagine what it must have been like to be there.

Right now, on this dark morning, there are two things for us, as a people, to do together.  First, we should pray.  We should pray for the families of loved ones who have lost their lives.  We should pray for the medical professionals who, right now, are tending to many who are critically injured in level one trauma centers.  We should pray for law enforcement as they seek to unravel what has happened.  And we should pray for Las Vegas.  Here is yet another community that has been marred and scarred by tragedy.

Second, as a part of our prayers, we should not forget to give thanks.  We should not forget to give thanks for the heroes proven in a terrible time of deadly strife.  We should not forget to give thanks for those who risked their own lives to place their fingers in the bullet holes of the wounded.  We should not forget to give thanks for those who were willing to sacrifice their own lives to save the lives of others.

As a Christian, I know that salvation never comes without sacrifice.  This is what makes the message of the cross both awful and wonderful all at the same time.  The cross is the place where the Son of God was unjustly murdered.  That is awful.  But the cross is also the place where I was graciously given life.  And that is wonderful – and the reason I have hope.

At the Mandalay Bay, the unthinkably awful happened.  But even the unthinkably awful cannot undo, or even outdo, the bravery of the heroes who were willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.  So, for the wounded and grieving I pray.  And, for the heroes of this morning I give thanks.

I hope you will join me in doing the same.

October 2, 2017 at 7:05 am Leave a comment

The National Anthem and the NFL

NFL: SEP 24 Browns at Colts

Credit: Time

I’m not sure I ever thought I’d see the day where more people would be talking about the National Anthem at the beginning of an NFL game than the score at the end of an NFL game.  But here we are.

What began as a one-man protest by Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, against, according to his own words, “a country that oppresses black people and people of color” has been spun up into an all-out culture war with as many rabbit trails as Scylla has heads.  One head continues to protest racial inequality.  Another head complains that a United States president would insert himself into an NFL personnel predicament to call for the firing of football players who kneel.  Still another head seethes over the thought that anyone would dare to disrespect a flag that is so closely tied to the men and women who have laid down their lives in service to our country.  The only thing these heads seem to share in common is that they’re all beet red with anger.

This can’t be good for us.  I agree with Ross Douthat who described this controversy as one in which “mutual misunderstanding reigns and a thousand grievances are stirred up without a single issue being clarified or potentially resolved.”  This is most certainly true.  This is a controversy that is ready-made to stoke the flames of a fight without providing a path to peace.  This is a controversy that encourages us to fester in a self-righteous indignation without having to listen to any side besides our own.  This is a controversy that excuses us from any duty to empathize so that we can hate a villain we refuse to humanize.

Bret Stephens, in a recent lecture, said that far too many of our positions on the public debates of our day “have become the moated castles from which we safeguard our feelings from hurt and our opinions from challenge. It is our ‘safe space.’ But it is a safe space of a uniquely pernicious kind – a safe space from thought, rather than a safe space for thought.”  So, we boo at those who dare to kneel and shame those who want to stand.

One of the things I appreciate about our National Anthem is that it can serve as a reminder of all the things we have to appreciate about our country – our freedom, our entrepreneurial spirit, and our commitment to be “the home of the brave” not only by confronting threats abroad, but also by honestly addressing where we have fallen short at home.  But now, as with so many other things, the National Anthem has become a flashpoint for division instead of a call to brotherhood.  We’ve taken our national motto’s pluribus and divorced it from its unum.  Now all we’re left with is e pluribus odium.

As Christians, we must never forget that even when our country is fracturing, Christ’s Church will not.  The unity that He gives is an example that, especially right now, our nation needs. And the unity that He promises is a hope that, especially right now, we can share.  Fractures can still be healed and many can still be one because of the One who died for many.

October 2, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Follow Zach

Enter your email address to subscribe to Pastor Zach's blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,944 other followers

Questions?

Email Icon Have a theological question? Email Zach at zachm@concordia-satx.com and he will post answers to common questions on his blog.

Zach’s Tweets

Calendar

October 2017
M T W T F S S
« Sep   Nov »
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031  

%d bloggers like this: