Be Still (Psalm 46)

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Adelaide has started experiencing some warmer weather in the last couple of weeks, reminding us that summer is just around the corner. When the temperatures start to rise, a lot of Australians head to the beach to cool off. While we’re enjoying the surf, we also need to remember what to do if we find ourselves in trouble. If something happens that we can’t swim back to the beach, we’re taught to raise our arm to signal for help and call out to the surf lifesavers or someone else on the beach. When that person comes out to help us, the best thing we can do is to do nothing. When someone swims out to save us, we need to relax, be still and let the rescuer carry us to safety.

Doing nothing requires a lot of faith. Our natural instinct is to do anything we can to keep our heads above water. Especially if we are panicked or terrified of drowning, we want to do whatever it takes to save ourselves. To stop what we’re doing and rely on another person means we need to trust that they can and will get us to safety. Being still in another person’s saving arms is only possible when we believe that they can save us and we trust that they are able to rescue us.

This natural tendency to want to do something to get ourselves out of difficult situations can be seen in almost every aspect of our lives. When troubles of any sort come our way, or when difficulties or struggles occur, we usually look for something we can do to fix things or make them right again. It’s like getting into trouble while swimming at the beach – our natural instinct is to want to keep our heads above water and sort things out for ourselves.

The person who wrote Psalm 46 knew what it was like to experience ‘times of trouble’ (v1 NLT). His world must have been collapsing around him as he describes earthquakes, mountains crumbling into the sea, oceans roaring and foaming, and mountains trembling as the waters surged (vv2,3). Whether we interpret these events literally or figuratively, they represent the chaos which this person was experiencing in his life. From where he stood, it looked like his world was falling apart!

However, in the middle of this chaos and confusion, the writer of Psalm 46 was not afraid. He trusted in God as his refuge and strength, a fortress into whom he could retreat and find security and safety. His relationship with God gave him the stability and shelter he needed to live in peace and hope. Like a lifesaver who swims out to a person in trouble at the beach, the writer of Psalm 46 looked to God to keep his head above the waves, hold him in his arms and bring him back to safety. He trusted that God would use the power he has to end wars, break bows, snap spears and burn shields (v9 NLT) to protect and care for him in the middle of his troubles.

All God asked of him was to be still (v10). In the same way that the best thing we can do to help a lifesaver get us back to the beach is relax, be still and do nothing, when God speaks in Psalm 46 he tells us to be still and trust him. The good news of Psalm 46 is that when we are experiencing times of trouble, when our world is falling apart, when our natural instinct is to either save ourselves or try to fix things, God asks us to be still and trust that he will take care of it. This isn’t easy for us because we feel like we need to do something, but this is one way we can understand grace: God does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. He just asks us to trust him. This ‘being still’ involves letting go of things that are out of our control, relaxing when troubles cause us stress or anxiety, and trusting that God can and will bring us through our troubles to a better place.

God does this for us in the person of Jesus. To use the lifesaver analogy, when Jesus was born as a human baby, he dove into the surf of human existence. Throughout his life, and especially in his suffering and death, Jesus joined us in the troubles, worries and pain of life in this world. Jesus’ life and death was him swimming out to meet us and wrapping his arms around us, no matter what we might be going through. Jesus’ resurrection is the way he carries us back to the safety of the beach. His triumph over sin, death and the power of evil carries us through the difficulties and traumas of this world to the safe and secure place of God’s presence in a new relationship with him. That is why Psalm 46 repeats the declaration that ‘The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Israel is our fortress’ (vv7,11). God swims out, meets us and carries us in his arms to safety through Jesus because he has already won the victory over the waves and storms of life in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Now he asks us to relax, let go, be still and trust that he will carry us to safety.

There are times in life when faith calls us to be active, especially in our love for each other. Psalm 46 teaches us, though, that there are also times in life when faith means doing nothing and trusting that God will work things out for us. There have been times in my life when I’ve experienced troubles that my natural reaction was to try to fix things or try to make them better. My efforts only resulted in making things worse. When I listened to the word of God telling me to ‘be still’ I relaxed, let go and trusted God to work things out. That was when things started to improve as God displayed his grace by doing what I couldn’t.

What is happening in your life right now? What troubles are you facing? If life is good, please remember to thank God for his blessings to you. However, if you are going through times of trouble, if there are things which are causing you stress, worry or anxiety, is it possible that God is asking you to relax, let go, be still and trust him? The promise of Psalm 46 is that through Jesus, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies is there with you and the God of Israel is your fortress. So you don’t need to be afraid. God is always ready to help in times of trouble.

Be still, and know that he is God.

Justified! (Romans 3:19-28)

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I suppose all of us have been caught doing something wrong at some stage in our lives. Usually when this happens our natural reaction is to try to justify ourselves and what we’ve done. We can do that by saying it wasn’t us, blaming others or trying to explain our actions. This is basically what it means to justify someone or something – to make what is wrong right again.

Can you imagine what it would be like to never have to justify yourself?

On the last Sunday in October, many churches around the world commemorate the start of the Reformation 500 years ago in Germany. It was a time when there were a lot of wrong things happening in the church. People like Martin Luther wanted to make these wrong things right again so others could encounter and trust in the grace and love of God that we hear about in the Bible and meet in the person of Jesus. At the heart of the Reformation was the message we hear in Romans 3:28 – that ‘we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law’ (NLT).

At this stage of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the early Christian community in Rome, he is pointing out that when we compare our lives to what God wants us to be and do, we all are always going to fall short. Paul writes,

For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. (v20 NLT)

Whether we think of God’s law as the Ten Commandments or the law of love that Jesus taught, it will always show us that we have a problem we can’t make right by ourselves. However, a couple of weeks ago we heard that nothing is impossible for God (Mark 10:27). God’s solution to our problem is to give us Jesus who lived the perfect life we should be living, and who died an innocent death in our place. That’s what Paul meant when he wrote,

For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. (v25a NLT)

The good news for us in this is that we don’t have to try to justify ourselves before God for the wrongs we have done because God has justified us through Jesus. God has taken everything about us that is wrong, flawed or broken and put it to death in Jesus’ crucifixion. God has then made us right again by giving us Jesus’ resurrected life which has nothing wrong in it at all. God gives us all this as a free gift, an act of pure grace, which we receive by believing that Jesus did it all for us.

In other words, when God catches us doing wrong (and he always does) Jesus jumps up, takes the blame for us, and frees us from having to try to justify ourselves. This is what it means to be justified – God re-forms us as right people through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection for us by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

Even though there can be times when we still feel like we need to justify ourselves or our actions in some way, God’s justifying work flows through every aspect of our lives. For example, we might think that we need to justify our identity, or our value, or the purpose of our lives. We can try to find a sense of who we are, that our lives are worth something, or that there is some sort of meaning to our existence. The work we do, both paid or unpaid, the things we own, the way we look, our relationships or even the religious things we do for the church can all be attempts to justify ourselves before other people, or even ourselves. In a whole range of different ways, we can spend our entire lives trying to somehow convince ourselves and others that we’re good people, that we’re worthwhile, or that our lives matter.

These are really just more ways in which we try to justify ourselves through our works. What Paul is saying in this passage, and one of the reasons why I believe there are so many unhappy and discontented people in our society, is that it doesn’t work. We can spend our whole lives trying to find our identity, value and meaning in what we do, but they will always be short-lived and we will have to keep looking for them in something else. And so we sacrifice our lives to our work, we go from relationship to relationship trying to find something that works for us, or we fill our homes with consumer goods we don’t need, only to get rid of them and buy something better when the next thing comes out. Trying to justify who we are, what we’re worth or meaning in our lives will always leave us empty and wanting more because these things don’t last.

That is why the Reformation cry to be justified by faith in Jesus is still important for us today. More than being about going to heaven when we die, being justified by Jesus means that we never have to try to justify ourselves to anyone ever again. Our whole lives are now made right through faith in Jesus. We can know who we are as God’s children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased because of Jesus’ saving work for us. We can know what we’re worth because of the price Jesus paid to bring us back into relationship with God – his holy and innocent life. We can know that our lives have meaning as we participate in God’s saving mission in the world by doing the good that God has prepared in advance for us to do and being ready to share the good news of Jesus with others. Our identity, value and purpose are all God’s free gifts to us, acts of God’s grace at work in our lives, as Jesus’ life, death and resurrection frees us from the need to try to justify ourselves. When we’re free from having to justify ourselves, then we can help others find who they are, what they’re worth and meaning in their own lives as God’s justified people.

Being justified by faith in Jesus is so much more than just a dusty old historical doctrine. Instead, living as people whose existences are justified through faith in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus for us gives us the possibility of knowing who we are, what we’re worth and what we’re here for. It liberates us to live as God’s people whoever we are and whatever we do, and to help others find their identity, value and meaning in Jesus.

Because the good news of the Reformation is that when we trust in Jesus, we never have to justify ourselves again.

Christ Alone (Romans 3:19-28)

All-focusOver the last 5 weeks we have been looking at some of the key teachings of the Reformation to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. So far we’ve looked at the church continually being re-formed, becoming like the picture of the church God gives us in Scripture Alone, as we live by God’s Grace Alone which we receive through Faith Alone.

What ties all this together and lives at the heart of all we have been looking at this month is the person of Jesus. He is central to the story of the Bible as the Old Testament points forward to his coming, and the New Testament proclaims his coming and this difference this good news makes. It is only because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that God shows us grace by giving us all we need for this life and the next. As we read in Romans, it is through faith in Jesus that God’s gifts of forgiveness, freedom and new life become ours and we receive the benefits of what Jesus has done for us through the Holy Spirit. It is through faith in Christ Alone, the last of the principles we are looking at, that God gives us his grace.

I don’t think anyone who identifies as Christian would disagree with keeping our focus on Christ Alone. However, there is a big difference between seeing Jesus as an example for us to follow, or as a gift that is given to us.

When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he said that he was setting an example for us (John 13:15). It is important that, as Jesus’ followers, we are following the example he set for us. However, if that is all Jesus is, then he is no different from any other moral teacher who sets us a good example to live by, but who can’t help us when we fail. We might believe that Jesus died and is risen again for us, and that he will come again at the end of time, but if he is only an example for us, then right here and now he isn’t able to help us.

It’s like going for a swim at the beach, getting caught in a rip, and being dragged away from shore. If we are caught in a situation like that, with the waves crashing on top of us and the rip pulling us farther from the beach, do we need someone to tell us what we need to do to save ourselves? Or do we need someone who is going to plunge into the water, meet us where we are, and carry us back to shore? Do we need someone to tell us what to do, or someone to save us?

That is why the Bible points to Jesus as God’s gift to us, not just as an example. God plunges into the realities of human existence as Jesus is called ‘Immanuel’ – ‘God with us’ (Matthew 1:23). Jesus makes his home with us through the word of God and his promises in it (John 1:14). Jesus unites himself with us through baptism so that he lives in us, we live in him, and we are one with him in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:3,4). When Jesus said, ‘This is my body’ and ‘This is my blood’ (Matt 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19,20; 1 Cor 11:23-25) he was promising to be with us in every situation of life, in the middle of the waves and rips, giving himself to us in love, and giving us the fullness of God’s goodness (Colossians 1:19). This view of Jesus as gift makes Paul’s talk about the church being the ‘body of Christ’ (1 Cor 12:12-31) much more than just a nice metaphor. Instead, the faith that Jesus is gift means that we are the living, breathing presence of Jesus in the world as we re-present him to those around us, and as others experience God’s grace in and through us.

When we trust in Christ Alone as gift to us and not just as an example, we find everything we need to live in freedom, peace, hope and love as God’s people. Through faith in Jesus as God’s grace-filled gift to us, we find a God who is with us in every situation and who gives us what we need most in those circumstances. When we are trapped in guilt, the presence of the crucified Jesus gives us the freedom of forgiveness and new beginnings. When we are lost in darkness, the gift of the presence of Jesus who overcame death gives us the light of hope. When we feel abandoned or rejected, the gift of the presence of Jesus who suffered abandonment and rejection means we are never alone. When we trust in Jesus as gift we can find our identity, belonging and purpose in relationship with him. He gives us an identity as children of God (Galatians 3:26), he gives us belonging as members of his body (1 Cor 12:27), and he gives us purpose as he ends us into the world to be the salt and light of God’s goodness in all we say and do (Matt 5:13-16).

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In a lot of ways this was the focus of Luther’s Reformation 500 years ago, and still needs to be our focus today. When you go into the city church in Wittenberg, the church where Luther did most of his preaching, there is a piece of art showing Luther in the pulpit on one side, pointing people on the other side of the painting to Jesus in the centre. This is what we, as God’s people in the world and as church, are called to do: to point each other to Christ Alone as God’s gift for each of us. Through faith in him, we can find grace, love, freedom, peace and hope and everything we need for this life and the next. Five hundred years from Luther’s Reformation, as we enter what is being referred to as a post-Christian culture, we still need to be pointed back to Jesus so we can give a faith-filled witness to the world.

Because for people in our time and place, the message of Jesus as gift for us is still good news.

More to think about:

  • Do you tend to think more of Jesus as an example or a gift? Why do you think of him that way?
  • If you were caught in a rip at the beach which was pulling you out to sea, would you want a surf lifesaver to give you instructions from the beach, or to jump in to the water to rescue you? How is Jesus like a lifesaver who swims out to rescue you?
  • How does that make Jesus different from every other moral or religious teacher?
  • A Lutheran perspective of Christianity stresses that in Jesus God is with us in all our circumstances through his Word, as well as the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Instead of just being doctrines to be debated, how can this teaching give us comfort, peace, hope and joy?
  • In your experience of church, do we focus on Christ Alone or do we get distracted by other things? How might church be different if we just focused on the good news of Christ Alone?

Faith Alone (John 6:29)

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When I sat down last Friday to write my message for Sunday’s services, I had a clear idea what I was going to say…

As we continue through our Reformation Month, my plan was to talk on the principle of Faith Alone. I was going to talk about how, for Martin Luther, faith is more than believing that there is a God, and more than believing that the death and resurrection of Jesus was a factual historical event. I wanted to make the point that, for Luther and the Reformers of the early 1500s, a saving faith means trusting that Jesus lived, died and is risen again for you.

Then I was going to say that faith in Jesus doesn’t come naturally for us. We need the Holy Spirit to be creating and growing this faith in us. That’s why Luther said, in his explanation to the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed, that the first and foremost work of the Holy Spirit is to call us by the gospel, enlighten us with his gifts, sanctify and preserve us in the true faith.

belief value attitude behaviour 01I was then going to explain that this faith in Jesus, given to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, makes a difference in our lives. Our behaviours grow out of our beliefs, as this diagram suggests. I was going to explain that this is what Jesus meant when he talked about trees and fruit (Matthew 7:15-20), vines and branches (John 15:1-17) and others knowing we are his disciples by the way we love each other (John 13:35). This is also the pattern Paul follows in his letters when he proclaims the good news of Jesus and then goes on to explore how this faith makes a difference in our lives, our relationships and our communities of faith.

And that was basically my message …

… until Sunday morning. I was reflecting on what I was planning to say when it dawned on me (please excuse the pun) that I was describing what faith looks like, but I had kind of missed the point.

Faith isn’t just an idea that we discuss and debate. Instead, the challenge that constantly confronts me as a pastor and a servant of the gospel is how to help others grow in their faith so that it makes a difference in their lives?

I regularly come across two main problems in my experience in working for the church. The first is that I know good people who have been going to church their whole lives who are still trapped in guilt or fear. The good news of Jesus is that he died on the cross and is risen again to free us from guilt and fear and a living faith in him gives us that freedom. So how do I help people find and grow in this faith so they can live in joy and peace instead of fear and guilt?

The second problem I encounter is that a lot of what we do in the church seems to focus on the top triangle in this diagram – our behaviours. We tend to focus on what we should or should not be doing, or what we think others should or should not be doing, in one way or another. Because our behaviours reflect our beliefs, what does our preoccupation with behaviours say about what we believe? If we really were operating from the Faith Alone principle, how might we prioritise faith over behaviours and activities?

There are a couple of conversations that we have been having in our congregation over the last year or so on discipleship, Simple Church and Growing Young. It occurred to me early on Sunday morning, that these conversations are, essentially, all about Faith Alone.
For example, most of the discipling books I read talk about following Jesus in terms of our behaviours and assume a saving faith. However, our first step in following Jesus needs to be to the foot of the cross and empty grave where we witness Jesus giving his life for us on the cross and overcoming death through his resurrection. A Lutheran perspective on discipleship needs to start with experiencing God’s grace and trusting that Jesus died and is risen again for me. And so our conversation about discipleship is about prioritizing Faith Alone in our congregation.

Our discussion around becoming a Simple Church is about looking at the busyness of our congregation and asking how much of it helps people grow in their faith as followers of Jesus. If our programs and activities are not helping people grow in their faith or equipping them to live their faith out in their relationships, then are we living by the Faith Alone principle? And so our conversation about becoming a Simple Church is about prioritising Faith Alone in our congregation.

Working through the book Growing Young was about asking how being disciples of Jesus and simplifying the busyness of our congregation can help us in our ministry to young people. They learn more from what we do than what we say, so we need to be living in ways that are consistent with our faith so our young people can to see the difference following Jesus makes in our lives. There is research from Mark McCrindle which argues that what attracts people most to ‘religion and spirituality’ is ‘seeing people who live out a genuine faith’ (The Faith and Belief in Australia Report). It is vital for us in our ministry to our young people, as well as our witness to the world, that we see faith in Jesus as something that shapes and transforms our lives.

When we encounter the grace of God and trust his grace to us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit shapes us into more grace-giving people. When we trust that God forgives us for Jesus’ sake, we become more forgiving people. When we believe in God’s love for us in Jesus, the Spirit of God makes us into more loving people. The more we grow in our faith in God’s goodness to us through Jesus, the more the Holy Spirit shapes us into loving, joyful, peace-filled, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled people (see Galatians 5:22,23). We don’t become this way by being told to be this way. Instead, the more our faith in God’s goodness grows, the more his goodness will show in our lives.

This is why the Reformation teaching on Faith Alone is still so important for us. It is too easy for us to think that faith is agreeing with a set of doctrines, instead of being a bold and confident trust that Jesus lived, died and risen again for me which makes a difference in my life. This is my hope and prayer for our church: that we can rediscover the importance of living by Faith Alone, so we can find the freedom, hope and joy which comes through faith, and so others can experience the goodness of God through us.

More to think about:

  • I have heard it said that everyone believes in something or someone. Do you agree with that? Explain why or why not.
  • What do you think of the idea that saving faith is not just believing there’s a God, or the historical truth of Jesus’ death & resurrection, but that Jesus did that for you? How does that compare with how you understand what faith is?
  • Can you think of examples where there is a close connection between what people believe and what they do? Would you agree that belief shapes behaviour, and what we do reflects what we believe? Explain your reasons for thinking that.
  • How important is it for Christians to reflect our faith in our behaviours, words and actions? When you look at the Christian church, what do our behaviours say about what we believe to you? To your family, friends or others?
  • How can your church community help you grow a deeper & stronger faith in Jesus? Do you have any suggestions for me about how to prioritise Faith Alone in our church?

Grace Alone (Romans 5:15-19)

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This month, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we are looking at some of the key teachings of the Reformation. This week we are exploring the principle of Grace Alone.

Grace can be one of those words that Christians use a lot without really being sure about what it actually means. It has a rich depth of meaning and nuances which can it difficult to define. However, in Romans 5:15-17, for example, Paul uses the Greek word for ‘grace’ (charis) with two words for ‘gift’ (charisma and dorea). This leads me to think of grace as a gift which God freely gives to us.

We can understand God’s grace in both narrower and broader ways. As I grew up in the church I understood God’s grace pretty much as the forgiveness of sins so we can go to heaven when we die. Romans 5:15-19 broadens this understanding of grace to include righteousness (God making everything that is wrong in us right again) and living in triumph over sin and death (v17 NLT). Paul goes on to write that God’s grace also gives us a new and right relationship with God which we can live in new ways (v18). So God’s grace gives us more than a place in heaven when we die. God’s grace gives us a new life to live now in right relationships and in freedom.

Paul goes on in Romans 8:32 to explain that God’s grace is even broader when he writes, ‘Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else?’ (NLT). The word he uses for ‘give’ here is again from the Greek word charis. By using this word Paul points us to see that every good thing we have is a gift of grace from God. Luther picked this up in his explanation to the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed in his Small Catechism when he wrote that God gives us everything we need for life in this world ‘only because he is my good and merciful Father in heaven, and not because I have earned or deserve it.’

More than being a doctrine to be debated, this understanding of grace is something we can live every day. It can be so easy for us to become discontent with what we have, and to want more, or newer, or better things or relationships. However, imagine what life could be like if we saw every good thing we have as a grace-filled gift from a God who loves us. This becomes the hope and goal of the teaching of Grace Alone. It is about finding contentment and joy every day of our lives, giving thanks to God for all the good things he gives us as he provides us with everything we need for life in this world and in the next.

However, every gift comes at a price. I can’t just go into a shop and expect them to give me something for free because I want to give it away as a gift. I still need to pay for the gift if I am going to give it as an act of grace to another person. This is why the cross of Jesus is crucial to our understanding of God’s grace. For God to give us all these gifts, someone had to pay for them. That is one way we can think of what Jesus did for us on the cross. When we looked at Scripture Alone, we saw that the central story of the Bible is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Because of Jesus’ perfect life, his innocent death, and his victory over death in his resurrection, God shows us grace by giving us forgiveness, a new relationship with him, a place in his family, and every good thing we need. Jesus paid for it all by dying on the cross, so we can receive God’s goodness as a totally free gift.

For people who believe in God’s grace to us in Jesus, then, we are called to extend God’s grace to others by living in grace-filled ways with the people around us. If we understand grace as God giving to us, then living as grace-filled people means that what we give to others is more important that what we get from them. This is significant for us as a church which is called to be continually re-forming because I often hear ‘getting’ language in the church – either what we want to ‘get’ from people or what we want to ‘get’ people to do for us. The language of ‘getting’ is not the language of grace. As people who see Grace Alone as one of our foundational teachings, it is vital that we embody the grace of God in our relationships and in our community of faith by looking to how we can be agents of God’s grace to the people around us, both inside and outside of our church. That means using language of giving rather than getting, looking more to what we can give that what we can get. To be a grace-giving church means passing God’s grace on to others, no matter what the cost, especially those whom we think deserve it the least and need it the most, like the people Jesus ate with in Matthew 9:9-13.

Over the years, I have learned that the Reformation teaching of Grace Alone means much more than we are forgiven so we get to go to heaven when we die. It is a whole new way of viewing ourselves, our relationships, our possessions, our church, and the people around us. Grace Alone means that every good thing we have is a free gift from a God who loves us and has given his only Son to die for us. As people who receive this grace from God, the Holy Spirit wants to continually be re-forming us so that we can participate with God in his mission to extend his grace to everyone.

More to think about:

  • If someone asked you what ‘grace’ means, how would you explain it to that person? How do you understand ‘grace’?
  • What do you think of understanding grace as giving? How does that compare with your understanding of grace? Does it help you understand grace better or make it more difficult?
  • Do you think it would be easy or difficult for you to think of everything you have as a gift from a grace-filled and loving God? How might thinking that way change the way you see the things & relationships you have? How might it change the way you see God?
  • Every gift still comes at a price. What is your reaction to the idea that God willingly gave the most precious thing he had, his only Son, in order to show you grace? What are your thoughts about Jesus’ willingness to give his life on the cross for you so you can experience grace from God?
  • Who is someone you know who needs grace from you? What can you do for that person to extend God’s grace to her/him?

Scripture Alone (2 Timothy 3:16)

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Last week, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we began looking at some of the basic teachings of the movement which not only re-shaped the Christian church in Europe, but also heavily influenced Western civilization. This week we are looking at the principle that the Bible is the only authority when it comes to matters of faith, teaching and practice in the church.

During the Middle Ages, when the leaders of the church needed to make decisions about what they believed, taught or did, they relied on two authorities – the Bible and the traditions of the church. When the Reformers started working to make changes in the church, however, they only recognised the authority of the Bible, giving birth to the principle of Scripture Alone. For those working to reform the church, the Bible gave the clearest picture of what God wants the church to be and the work God wants the church to be doing in the world. Traditions of the church had their place, but it was the Bible that was to determine which of those traditions were to remain and which were to be discarded.

For example, when Martin Luther appeared before Emperor Charles V in 1521, he was ordered to take back what he had been writing. If he didn’t, he would be excommunicated from the church and condemned as a heretic. The story goes that Luther replied by saying:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

One thing we can learn from these words is that Luther saw the Bible as the only authority in determining what is taught, believed and done in the church because human authorities have the tendency to get things wrong.

This is important for us today because traditions can still play a big part in our churches. Over the years, there have been times when I have been talking with people about how the Bible describes what God wants for a Christian community and people have replied that they have never done things like that before. As a church that is called to be continually reforming so that we can give a faithful witness to the gospel in a rapidly changing world, it is critical that we listen to the Reformers who pointed to the Bible as our only way of knowing who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do.
The challenge that goes with this is that it can hard for us to agree on what the Bible is actually saying. The Reformers discovered this, which is why we have so many different Christian denominations today. We say that the Bible is our only authority, but we find it incredibly difficult to agree on what the Bible actually says.

One example of this is the way I have seen the Bible being used in the same-sex marriage debate in Australia over the last few months. Christians on both sides of the discussion have pointed to different Bible verses to support their point of view about whether biblical rules say same-sex marriage is OK or not. They both claim that the Bible is their source of truth, but both read the Bible in very different ways.

Martin Luther’s approach to reading the Bible can help us find a way through this challenge. Luther taught that God says two words to us through the Bible. On the one hand, there are things God wants us to do, which we call law. On the other hand, God also wants to tell us what God has done and wants to do for us, especially in the person of Jesus. We call this gospel because it is good news for us (see verses such as John 1:17; Romans 5:20; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Galatians 3:17,18).

As long as we read the Bible as a book of rules, it will always show us to be people who break rules (Romans 3:20). For Luther, then, the main message of the Bible is that in the person of Jesus, God comes to give rule-breakers forgiveness, freedom, hope and life. For Luther, the central story of the Bible is the story of Jesus. He ate with social outcasts, extended mercy to the people society had rejected, brought grace to the people who needed it the most but deserved it the least, and gave healing to people with wounded hearts and souls. Jesus was crucified as a rule-breaker, died with convicted criminals, set the guilty free through his death and brings us life through his resurrection and victory over death. As we hear in Luke 4:16-21, Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed as he brings us God’s favour and grace.

So when Luther argued and fought for the principle of Scripture Alone, he was fighting for the church to keep the good news of Jesus central to all we are and do.

It is easy for us to drift away from keeping the gospel, the central message of the Bible, as our central message. We can easily become more like a business, a social club, a welfare agency, or a moral watchdog. The call for us to recognize Scripture Alone as our authority means, for us as Lutherans, that we keep the gospel as our first and foremost priority, so that we can join with Luther and the Reformers in bringing the good news of Jesus to a world that is in desperate need of the hope, joy, love and grace it provides.

More to think about:

  • Do you read your Bible regularly? Why / why not?
  • What is more important in how you think about what we do as church: our traditions (the way we’ve always done things) or what the Bible teaches us? How might your church community be different if you applied the Scripture Alone principle and relied solely on what the Bible teaches us about being church?
  • When you think about the central message of the Bible, do you tend to think more about about the law or gospel, rules or grace, God’s commands or God’s promises to us? Can you explain why you think about the message of the Bible like that?
  • How might your understanding of the Bible be different if you thought of it more in terms of the way God wants to speak his grace, love, forgiveness and freedom into your life?
  • What might need to change in your church community if you were to keep communicating the good news of Jesus as your core purpose and task?

Reforming Since 1517 (Ephesians 2:8)

Luther Door 01

Christians around the world from many denominations will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this month. On 31st October, 1517, Martin Luther, a German monk, pastor and university lecturer, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Many see this event as the start of a movement which changed Western European society forever.

Because this is such a significant event, our congregation will spend all 5 Sundays in October having a closer look at some of the key ideas of the Reformation movement and why they are still important for us today.

One way we can understand why the Reformation happened was that the church had lost its way during the Middle Ages. By the 1500s, the church was concerned with worldly power and influence, generating financial revenue, and using fear and guilt to maintain their control. While this might be a simplistic evaluation of a complicated church culture, basically the church had strayed a long way from the picture of Christian community that God has given us in the Bible.

This was the church culture in which Martin Luther grew up. He took his sin very seriously and was struggling to find a forgiving and loving God in the church of his day. The harder Luther tried to make God happy with him, the more he felt God was unhappy with him.

Luther eventually discovered that God was pleased with him, but not because of what he was doing. He found God’s grace in the Bible through verses like Romans 1:17 that “the righteous will live by faith” (NIV) and Ephesians 2:8, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (NIV). Luther’s personal discovery of the gospel grew into a thriving movement as he and others sought to communicate the good news of God’s grace through faith in Jesus, and to bring freedom to people who were trapped in fear and guilt.

A pivotal idea of the Reformation was that the church needs to be continually re-forming. The Reformation was never meant to be just an event that we read about in history books. Instead, the people who dedicated themselves to restoring God’s vision for the church wanted those who came after them to continue their work of returning to the basic truths of the Christian faith, asking whether we are still being consistent with those truths, affirming where we are being faithful, but also being courageous enough to make changes where we are drifting away from them.

As Lutherans, we celebrate the Reformation because we believe that God still wants to be re-forming us as his church today.

Because of our flawed human nature, we always run the risk of drifting away from being the Christ-centred community God wants us to be. Maybe that is one of the reasons why the first of Luther’s 95 Theses read, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” One way or another, intentionally or not, we are going to get things wrong. Jesus calls us to repentance, to keep turning back to him and the truth of his good news, so we can find forgiveness, freedom, love and life through faith in him. Jesus calls us to be faithful to the gospel in our lives, but also in the ways that we live out the gospel in our relationships with each other and as organisations that carry his name. In the same way, the Reformation movement challenges us to ask whether we, his church, are still being faithful to the gospel in our current time and place. Where we are being faithful to the gospel, we can give thanks to God for his faithfulness to us. However, where we are not being consistent with the good news of Jesus, in the spirit of the Reformation, we need to change.

This is largely what our congregation’s Simple Church and Growing Young conversations have been about over the past year or more. I have been asking our congregation to look at what we are doing and ask whether we have been in step with what the Bible says God wants for us as his community of believers, or whether we need to make some changes. As a congregation that exists in the tradition of the Reformation, we need to reflect on where we are and where we think we are heading, and ask whether we are moving closer to the picture of Christian community which God gives us in the Bible. Where we are, we can give thanks and affirm the good work God is doing in us. However, where we might be drifting away from who God wants us to be, maybe it’s time to make some changes.

For the next four weeks, we will be going back to some of the basic teachings of the Reformation and asking how they might still speak to us. Next week, we will look at the belief that the Bible is the only authority on which we can know God and what he wants for us. The following week, we will be asking what it means that we are saved by grace alone. The week after that, we will look at how Luther and the Reformers understood faith and how our lives are shaped by what we believe. In the last week of October, we will focus on Jesus who alone is God’s revelation of himself to us, and through whom we can find God’s goodness and love for us.

The Reformation is both a gift and a challenge to the church. It is a gift because it restored the gospel of Jesus as the heart and core purpose of our lives, both as individuals and as church. The Reformation is also our challenge because it asks us to make whatever changes may be needed so we can give a faithful witness to the gospel in all we say and do.

As we celebrate the Reformation this month, we don’t just celebrate an historical event that happened 500 years ago. We are part of a 500 year struggle to be true to God’s grace so we can faithfully bring the good news of Jesus to the world around us.

More to think about:

  • What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Reformation’? Share some thoughts about what the Reformation has meant for you in your life.
  • What do you know about the life of Martin Luther? Share some stories you might have heard about him or what he might have said or done (you can find a short animated version of Luther’s life here; if you would like to read his 95 Theses you can find them here)
  • The basic goal of the Reformation was to re-form the church with the gospel of Jesus as its heart and core purpose. Do you think this was a good aim? Explain why you think that?
  • As you look at the church today, do we still keep the gospel of Jesus as our heart and core purpose? Do you think we still need to be re-forming today? If you think so, what are some aspects of the church that we need to be re-forming?
  • Over the next 4 weeks we will be looking at the Reformation principles of Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone and Christ Alone. Is there anything connected with any of these that you would like us to look at in particular? Do you have any questions or concerns about any of these that we could explore for you?