April, 2013

Though the Fig Tree Does Not Blossom

 

In recent days and weeks I have been overwhelmed by the constant presence of sin in our world. I have been convicted of the sin in my own heart as I have been short with others, complained mercilessly, and failed to love others as I should. I have also been confronted with the awful reality of a good creation that is deeply marred by sin. Sadly, upon hearing of the bombing in Boston my initial reaction was simply, “Here we go again.” These tragedies are far too common in our world…such that they no longer strike me as unusual or abnormal.

The book of Habakkuk is seldom read. This book is one of those parts of your bible where the pages are likely still crisp and clean. But the book of Habakkuk has a tremendous message for those who live in a world ravaged by sin. Habakkuk wrote at a time when Assyria was in the decline and Babylon would soon rise. Going from bad to worse, the prophet Habakkuk wondered if God was either deaf or impotent.

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you  ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted” (Hab 1:2-4).

Calamity and destruction continue. It seems that violence, strife, contention, and injustice rule the day. Those in authority make promises of justice, freedom, and prosperity but can never really deliver. The grave [Sheol] is described as greedy and never satisfied (Hab 2:5). Death, disease, destruction, and decay are part and parcel of a world that is in rebellion to God. The picture can appear quite grim. But that is not the end of the story. In these dire circumstances Habakkuk was learning to realize that the people of God must continue to trust in the promises of God. “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab 2:4). This is the same verse the apostle Paul turned to in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11 to argue that righteousness from beginning to end is by faith. Faith that in the midst of this broken and chaotic world there is redemption…there is a Redeemer.
We can be tempted in the face of trying times to wonder, “Where is God?” This was the same question those who taunted Jesus on the cross asked, “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now…” (Mt 27:43). It is a question I’ve heard countless times in response to disasters. Where is God? But while Jesus had every right to ask that same question, he remained faithful and was victorious over death (Mt 28:6). While Jesus was being told to save himself he was faithfully executing the Father’s plan of salvation for the world. The resurrection is God’s statement that he has not left us to the whims of evil. God is not far off. Death, disease, destruction, and decay will not have the final say. Though the grave is greedy and insatiable, it cannot hold Jesus. He emerges victorious and will triumphantly vindicate his name (Rev 19:11-16). This is the faith Habakkuk showed. Even as wickedness and injustice seemed to reign in his day, Habakkuk trusted by faith in God’s redemption.

“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vine, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places” (Hab 3:17-19).

Will we have the faith to see God’s grace in the midst of trying circumstances? Let those in Christ answer by declaring that we will rejoice in the words of the little-known prophet, Habakkuk. We will take joy in the promise of our Redeemer. We will find strength in our God.

“O grant that we may patiently bear [this suffering], and under a deep feeling of sorrow flee to your mercy; and may we in the meantime persevere in the hope of that mercy, which you have promised, and which has been once exhibited toward us in Christ, so that we may not depend on the earthly blessings of this perishable life, but relying on your word may proceed in the course of our calling, until we shall at length be gathered into that blessed rest, which is laid up for us in heaven, through Christ our Lord, Amen” (John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets vol. IV).

On the Shoulders of Giants – John Calvin

Today among many young Christians and burgeoning pastors there is a resurgence of Calvinism. Many have seen the vapid theologies of self-importance and the unbiblical ramblings of liberalism unravel before their eyes. Growing up in decaying Mainline denominations or flaccid “seeker-sensitive” churches, they want something more robust and orthodox. In their search they have rediscovered the teachings of the famed French reformer and embraced the title of ‘Calvinist.’
John Calvin was born in Noyon, France in 1509. His father was an administrator for the local Roman Catholic Bishop. Calvin’s father wanted his son to become a priest, so at the age of 14 he was sent off to Paris to study for the priesthood. While studying for the priesthood, Calvin was introduced to reform-minded individuals who profoundly affected his understanding of God’s sovereignty and grace. Calvin’s life experience should be an influence on our ideas of what a healthy youth group would look like. Far more than games about bodily functions and simple bible stories, our youth need good solid grounding in the Word of God. By 1527 Calvin had left the Roman Catholic Church and under the advice of his father began to study law rather than theology.

In 1533, John Calvin fled Paris due to his opposition to the Catholic Church. It is believed that in this year Calvin was actually converted. Calvin wrote in his preface to his Commentary on the Book of Psalms, “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame…I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to pursue a knowledge of true godliness.” Three years later he published the first edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, a systematic theology and an instant best seller. The latin title of the first edition gives a good introduction to Calvin’s aim in writing this work: The Institute of the Christian Religion, Containing almost the Whole Sum of Christian Piety and Whatever is Necessary to Know in the Doctrine of Salvation. A Work Very Well Worth Reading by All Persons Zealous for Piety, and Lately Published. A Preface to the Most Christian King of France, in Which this Book is Presented to Him as a Confession of Faith. Author, John Calvin, of Noyon. Basel 1536. They don’t make titles like they used to! Calvin was set to travel from France to Strasbourg but, due to war between Francis I and Charles V, he was detoured to Geneva for one night.

In Geneva, Calvin was approached by the fiery red-head William Farel who invited him to remain in Geneva as pastor. Calvin was disinclined to stay, but Farel threatened Calvin with God’s wrath if he did not oblige. Calvin remembers Farel’s appeal this way:

Farel, who burned with extraordinary zeal to advance the gospel, immediately strained every nerve to detain me. [Upon learning that I would not stay] he proceeded to utter an imprecation that God would curse my retirement and studies…By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror that I desisted from my journey which I had undertaken. (Commentary on the Psalms, 1:xliii).

Calvin reluctantly agreed to stay and thus began the long and fruitful (and sometimes tenuous) relationship with the city of Geneva. His years there were filled with preaching, lecturing, and writing that sought to magnify the glory of God through the power of the Gospel in the life of the Church.

In his 1534 preface to Olivetan’s French translation of the New Testament, Calvin wrote:

Without the gospel everything is useless and vain; without the gospel we are not Christians; without the gospel all riches is poverty, all wisdom folly before God; strength is weakness, and all the justice of man is under the condemnation of God. But by the knowledge of the gospel we are made children of God, brothers of Jesus Christ, fellow townsmen with the saints, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, heirs of God with Jesus Christ, by whom the poor are made rich, the weak strong, the fools wise, the sinner justified, the desolate comforted, the doubting sure, and slaves free. It is the power of God for the salvation of all those who believe …

This is a robust, life-changing, gospel-saturated, vibrant, and biblical faith. Calvin sought to be faithful to God’s Word even when it meant alienation from all he had once known. He sought to be faithful to God’s calling even when it meant a different path. His theology was written in a time when faithfulness to Scripture over the Church was met with death. Calvin sought to vindicate the faithful and the God for whom the suffered. Everyone has a theology. The question is whether or not that theology is faithful to the majesty and glory of God. What if we all pursued the knowledge of God with such a vigor and passion? We would see lives, families, churches, and societies experience a new Reformation; all to the majesty and glory of God Almighty!

 

On the Shoulders of Giants – Martin Luther

Martin Luther was born Nov. 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany to a copper miner. His father wanted him to enter the legal profession, so the younger Luther studied law in the University. On a fateful July night, Luther was thrown from his horse during a ferocious thunder storm. In fear, Luther cried out, “Help me, St. Anne [the patron saint of miners]; I will become a monk!” Fifteen days later, much to his father’s dismay, Luther kept his vow. He joined an Augustinian monastery. The other monks quickly recognized Luther for having a keen theological mind. He was ordained into the priesthood, earned his doctorate, and assumed the chair of Biblical Theology at the University of Wittenberg. It was in Wittenberg where one of the most defining events of Luther’s life would occur.

In early years of the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church was expending tremendous resources in the building St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Sistine Chapels don’t get painted for free. In need of money, the church struck a deal with Albert of Mainz to sell indulgences to the people of Germany and split the proceeds. Indulgences were papal blessings which would grant the bearer of the indulgence (or the deceased relative of the bearer) relief from the penalty of their sin. The biblical grounding for this practice was non-existent, but the promise of relief from eternal punishment made it a best-seller. These were the days of the Black Death and the average life span was around 40 years. The common folks suffered from a tremendous fear of death. The allure of heavenly bliss through a financial gift was powerful. Albert of Mainz employed a slick huckster, Johan Tetzel, to hawk these indulgences across Germany. Tetzel’s powerful sermons were accompanied with a catchy jingle: Every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs! Luther was aghast with this pastoral abuse.

On Oct. 31, 1517, as was common in academic settings, Luther posted a series of statements to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel. These statements, his 95 Theses, were meant to spur on academic debate regarding the practice of the sale of indulgences. Luther was attempting to start a revolution in the church as much as he was attempting to begin a scholarly debate about the validity of indulgences. The 95 Theses were translated from Latin into German, published (thanks to the newly invented printing press), and spread rapidly throughout the area. This is how things went “viral” in the 16th century. The truth of Luther’s 95 Theses resonated with the people. The Church in Rome was furious. This simple monk with a mallet had ignited a powder keg.

Still, Luther was not attempting to reform the church. In 1518, as he was preparing to teach through the book of Romans, Luther was confronted by a theological issue that would change his whole way of thinking. Luther was profoundly struck with the concept of Sola Fide, the doctrine of justification by faith alone, as found in Romans 1:17, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” He found this crucial doctrine missing from the Roman Church. Luther began to question this and other abuses of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly, the authority of the Pope over the Word of God. His writings began to put him at odds with the established church.

In January of 1521, Luther was officially excommunicated by Pope Leo X. Leo’s statement read, “Rise up, O Lord, and vindicate thy cause, for a wild boar has invaded the vineyard of the church.” All of Luther’s writings were gathered together and burned as heretical. Luther responded by throwing a party and burning the notice of excommunication. Subtlety was not Luther’s strength. In April of 1521, the emperor called Luther to give an account of himself. At the trial, Luther was asked to denounce all his previous writings. The was a very serious matter for Luther. He had not wanted to start a reformation or revolution. Luther believed in the Church and in Christ’s care for the Church. But he was deeply concerned about the heresy that had slipped in unnoticed. The last thing Luther wanted to do was invited a further division between him and the church. Luther asked for a day to consider.

The following day he stood and replied, “Unless I am persuaded by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, then I cannot and will not recant because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” The fuse of the Reformation had been lit and there was no turning back.