Posts tagged ‘Redemption’

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)

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

Egalitarianism That Oppresses

Equal SignThe Christian gospel is egalitarian in its effect. In the words of the apostle Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In Christ, Paul argues, divisions between Jews and Greeks, slaves and free men, and males and females have been broken down. Social strata have no bearing in the economy of God’s salvation.

It is important to note that the locus of Paul’s egalitarianism is explicitly and specifically redemptive. In other words, Paul is not arguing that all societal differences between people should disappear. Rather, he is claiming that such differences have no bearing on whether or not Christ saves a person.

When Paul penned Galatians 3:28, the egalitarianism of which he spoke was nothing short of radical and, I would hasten to add, good. I am concerned, however, that Paul’s redemptive egalitarianism has been coopted by another kind of egalitarianism – one that is not so good.

In his book, To Change The World, James Davison Hunter speaks of a populism that:

…is often transformed into an oppressive egalitarianism that will suffer no distinction between higher and lower or better and worse. At its worse, it can take form as “tyranny of the majority” that will recognize no authority, nor hierarchy of value or quality or significance.[1]

Though it seems oxymoronic to speak of an “oppressive egalitarianism,” this is where, culturally, I fear we have arrived.

With the rise of postmodernity, Paul’s redemptive egalitarianism was traded for an ethical egalitarianism that eschewed distinctions between right and wrong, higher and lower, better and worse. Of course, such a refusal to place an ethical stake in the ground inevitably undermines traditional, historical, biblical morality. But it was this ethical egalitarianism, free from the nagging and wagging finger of traditional ethical commitments, that paved the way for another kind of egalitarianism – the populous egalitarianism of today that picks and chooses new ethical standards by simple majority vote (with a little front-end help, of course, from elite opinion leaders who not only shape, but sometimes shoehorn, certain elements of public policy). This is why serious ethical issues are regularly framed as little more than political squabbles with nothing more than polling data needed to solve them. This is what Hunter means when he speaks of the “tyranny of the majority.”

What happens to those who do not share the ethical sentiments of the majority? They are ridiculed and caricatured. They are philosophically discredited, even if by logically dubious means, and intellectually castigated. They become victims of an “oppressive egalitarianism.”

In the apostle Paul’s redemptive egalitarianism, egalitarianism is a gift, granted by Christ’s work on the cross. In today’s populous egalitarianism, egalitarianism is a locus of power – a way to oppress transcendent, historical ethical commitments with the fickle ethical commitments of the masses. Populist ethics, however, are never far from social chaos. After all, no matter what “we the people” may want ethically, transcendence has a funny way of eventually getting its way.

A populous egalitarianism that battles transcendent ethics is doomed to fail. Conversely, a redemptive egalitarianism that saves people regardless of their social standing is a promise from God. And, as such, it is destined to emerge victorious.

Let’s make sure we’re on the right side of the right kind of egalitarianism.

_______________________________

[1] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 94.

April 27, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

ABC Extra – One Barley Harvest From Redemption

Depression is epidemic in our world.  According to the latest statistics available, major depression affects approximately 15 million American adults, or about eight percent of the U.S. population.  And these statistics pertain only to people 18 years of age and older.  This does not take into account the severe depression that plagues four percent of adolescents.  Interestingly, the fastest growing demographic for anti-depressants is toddlers.  Experts estimate that at least four percent of toddlers – over one million tikes – are clinically depressed.  Yes, depression is a major problem in our world.

In Adult Bible Class this weekend, we tackled the problem of depression and looked at the story of Naomi.  There can be hardly a doubt that Naomi was a depressed woman.  In the first five verses of the book of Ruth, Naomi has to move from her hometown of Bethlehem to the foreign and pagan land of Moab where she loses her husband as well as her two sons.  If I lost my home and family, I would be depressed as well!

Naomi’s depression manifests itself first in the way in which she treats her two widowed daughters-in-law.  She, as a worshiper of the true God of Israel, actually encourages her daughters-in-law to return to their former paganism (cf. Ruth 1:15), a suggestion that would have shocked and revolted any ancient Israelite.  Moreover, Naomi blames God for her tragic plight.  She declares, “The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me” (Ruth 1:21).  In the Latin Vulgate, the Hebrew word for “Almighty” is Omnipotens, from whence we get our English word “omnipotence,” a word which references the all-powerful nature of God.  Thus, Naomi is accusing God of using His omnipotence not for her welfare, but for her harm.  Indeed, the Hebrew word for “misfortune” is ra’a, meaning “evil.”  Naomi, then, goes so far as to accuse God of being the author of evil in her life.

As I mentioned in Adult Bible Class, Naomi’s response to hardship is not exactly the pinnacle of piety.  Her response to trouble differs vastly from Job’s more famed response to his trials:  “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (Job 1:21).  Job’s response, in the opinion of most people, seems to be the more dignified and pious response to affliction.  And yet, our responses to suffering more often mirror Naomi’s than they do Job’s.  I know that mine do.

Still, there is hope.  For just as God restores the fortunes of Job, He also restores the fortunes of Naomi.  He does this not on the basis of her faithfulness to Him – for she acts faithlessly – but according to His grace and care for her.  Indeed, even as Naomi is accusing God of bringing evil on her, the biblical text clues us into the fact that God is working behind the scenes to care for this desolate and despondent widow:  “So Naomi returned from Moab, accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning” (Ruth 1:22).  It is at this barley harvest that Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth meets a man named Boaz who is exceptionally kind to both her and her mother-in-law, providing them with food, and eventually marrying Ruth and providing an heir to carry on Naomi’s family name.  While Naomi is complaining about God, God is all the while working through something as inauspicious as a barley harvest to redeem Naomi’s tragic circumstances.  Naomi was only one barley harvest away from being redeemed by God – and she didn’t even know it.

Interestingly, the barley harvest in ancient Israel was also known as the Feast of Firstfruits.  The Feast of Firstfruits was an opportunity for the Israelites to bring the first and best of their harvest before God in thankfulness to Him (Numbers 15:17-21).  Notably, this was also the day on which Jesus rose from death, for He too is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).  The Feast of Firstfruits, then, was a time to celebrate the redemption of God and, finally, how that redemption is expressed fully and finally in Christ, even as Paul writes:  “Christ was delivered to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25).  For on the Feast of Firstfruits, Christ, risen from the dead, redeemed us from sin, death, and the devil.

In Ruth 1:22, the barley harvest is beginning.  And though Naomi cannot yet see it, she will soon be celebrating the redemption of God, just as she should be at the Feast of Firstfruits.  She is only one barley harvest away from having her tragedy redeemed by her Lord.

In your times of trial, do you believe that God can redeem you out of tragedy?  You should. Scripture exhorts us to “wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).  There is a Day coming when our Lord will appear and redeem us out of all our trouble, heartache, and pain, for the older order of this sinful world will pass away.  This day is the Last Day of Christ’s return, sometimes pictured as a harvest (cf. Matthew 3:12).  Thus, like Naomi, no matter what we face today or tomorrow, and no matter how much depression it might bring us, Scripture promises that we are only one harvest away from redemption.  I hope you hold fast to this precious promise.

Want to learn more on this passage? Go to
www.ConcordiaLutheranChurch.com
and check out audio and video from Pastor Tucker’s
message or Pastor Zach’s ABC!

May 10, 2010 at 4:45 am Leave a comment


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