It is common today to hear people dismiss disagreements by saying, “It’s just a matter of semantics.” What that statement reveals, among many things, is that this person doesn’t understand what the word semantics means. Semantics is about “meaning:” that is, words mean something. They are not just sounds that we utter; they are messages that we send out to others so that they can understand our thoughts and feelings.
Now there are those who use techniques to mislead by infusing certain words with meanings that are not original. They use language deceptively, not to communicate but to confuse.
There is a legitimate sense in which words are altered. We combine or invent new ways of using them in order to say something that cannot be adequately “labeled” by existing terminology. In such cases, these new words help our understanding and improve communication.
This is what David Kinnamon & Gabe Lyons have done in their book UnChristian. The word they created is “de-churched.” Today when we speak about people who are outside of the church, we use terms like “un-reached,” or “un-churched.” “Un-reached” implies that they have never heard the Gospel and therefore have never had a chance to believe. “Un-churched” suggests that the person has some degree of familiarity with the Gospel and Christianity, but have not connected with the church in a meaningful way.
According to work done by the Barna Research Group, neither of these words adequately describe the condition of most Americans. They are not “un-reached” because it is nearly impossible to avoid hearing the Gospel in America at least once in a lifetime. Nor can they be called “un-churched,” since between 65 and 73 percent have at some point in their lives had an extensive or intensive encounter with the church. Kinnaman suggests that instead we should call these folks, “de-churched.” In other words, they have disconnected from the church. They feel it is irrelevant to their needs, and inauthentic in its practice. In their view, we are like King Belshazzar; we have been weighed in the balances and found wanting.
How do we reach these folks? They have most likely already heard the Gospel. Now they need to see it!
Lord, help us to first know what we believe,
Pray for the grace to radically live what we believe,
To be honest and humble enough to admit when we don’t.
Recently, I asked the church staff what they considered to be the greatest needs and/or challenges facing our church. Here are their thoughts:
1. That we might encourage the body to become more FULLY DEVOTED FOLLOWERS of Jesus.
Too many Christians take pride in their knowledge of the Bible and the fact that they are part of a Bible-teaching church. What they seem to forget is Paul's warning that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1). The true reason we need to study and know the Bible is so that we can see the nature of the Father, perfectly expressed through Jesus… so we study Jesus—with the desire to devote ourselves to God and to His will. Pray with us: "Lord, make me a FULLY DEVOTED FOLLOWER of Jesus—and make me more like Him!"
2. That more FULLY DISCIPLED LEADERS would be trained up.
Jesus put it best: The harvest is great, but the laborers are few (Matthew 9:37). There are too many people who need spiritual mentors to disciple them in the faith. Because too many people see discipleship as the job of the pastor or other church staff, few relationships between Christians involve mentoring or discipling; those that exist instead just focus on "fellowship." Bible teachers and preachers are called to communicate what the Word says—but those truths can only be fully understood as they are shared one-on-one. Discipleship requires relationship between a mature believer and an immature believer. Pray with us: "Lord, raise up FULLY DISCIPLED mature leaders who are willing to disciple the younger."
3. That the church would become a FULLY MISSIONAL COMMUNITY.
Christianity was not designed to be lived in isolation; yet large congregations tend to isolate many people. We are individuals, but we are also parts and members of a spiritual community called the Church. The Church is repeatedly referred to as a family, a community, a brotherhood, etc.
But what is the purpose of the community. It is not intended to be simply a holy huddle where Christians can find their seven best friends and live happily ever after. Christians are called to be on a mission to reach the world. As we grow in community we are also called to reach out into our community. This is done best when we not only love others that we know, but together we reach out together in love to others we don’t know. This is community with a purpose beyond ourselves. It is community designed to reach the greater community for Christ.
Are you part of a small home-based group of believers? It is within such a context that the most and best spiritual growth takes place. It is the place where the Bible’s teachings make the most sense and have their greatest opportunity to be expressed in meaningful ways. Pray with us: "Lord, lead me to a small group of dedicated believers where I can grow in YOU, and be knit together with this COMMUNITY of YOURS."
One of the most intriguing passages in the New Testament is John 2:24-25. Read it and tell me if you don’t agree:
“Jesus didn’t trust them, because he knew what people were really like. No one needed to tell him about human nature.” (New Living Translation)
Simply put, Jesus didn’t trust people. But then, how could He. He knows us too well. He knows we are fickle, unreliable, changeable, self absorbed… and worst of all, habitually sinful. Like Peter we like to boast about our fidelity under all circumstances (John 13:37). But when the going gets tough, we more often than not head for an exit. Peter did. And so did the remaining 10 disciples. Once Jesus was arrested, John reports on their response:
"The disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19).
They were no-where to be found. Apparently they had fled to the safety of the Upper Room, locked the doors, shut the windows, turned off the lights, and waited for the trouble to pass.
Think about this for a moment. Jesus foreknew (knew in advance), everything that was going to happen (John 16:32). He knew Judas would betray Him. He knew that Peter would deny Him. And He knew that the other ten would desert Him; consumed with fear that the Jews would come for them next and do to them what they had done to Jesus.
Yet despite His foreknowledge of their coming betrayal, Jesus still “washed their feet”, so that He could,
“show them the full extent of his love” (John 13:1).
It is easy to overlook the fact that Jesus washed the feet of men He knew would betray Him in a few hours hence. He washed Peter’s feet who three times denied that He even knew Jesus. Most remarkably, He washed Judas feet; the man who was at the center of the whole series of diabolical events to come.
And then when He had finished washing their feet, he told them (and by extension, you and me),
"I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you" (John 13:15).
But how? How do I allow myself to be open, vulnerable and loving towards others whom I know may very well let me down; especially if they have hurt me in the past? Aren’t they likely to do it again?
We do it in the same way that Jesus did it: We don’t trust people, we trust God!
Jesus knew that He could not rely upon even His closest and most devoted followers. So instead of “relying” upon them, He placed all His reliance upon the Father, who never fails or disappoints!
When we get disappointed in others, it reveals that a subtle kind of idolatry is going on inside our hearts. We are looking at others to provide for us what only God can provide: Safety! People can make promises, but even the best of men will fail to keep their promises sooner or later.
But not God. God is love. And of that “love” Paul writes
"It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails" (1 Corinthians 13:7, 8).
The point is this: If you rely upon people, they will disappoint you. In response, you will probably become guarded, cautious, distant, self-protective, and even bitter. You will live with a clenched fist and a distant heart. And with each new betrayal, the walls around your heart will get taller and thicker. They will also slowly strangle you like a boa constrictor.
But if you rely upon God, human disappointments, may still hurt; but they will not derail you. Instead, they will drive you deeper into the Father’s heart and hands. The love you find there will be so rewarding, that you will no longer fear the hurt that people can do to you. As a consequence, you will live an open life, receptive and loving of others.
If you look at the byline on our website, or on our weekly bulletin, you will notice the following mission statement: Love God, Love His Word, Love One Another. These three things, I believe, are what should define the life and mission of any individual or organization that claims to represent the person of God in Christ.
Why? Unless what we are doing is an active expression of love for God, it can only be of one other source: Love for Self! As Jesus said, we can only serve one master. More importantly, we will love the one and hate the other. We are either intentionally serving God, or intentionally Self; there is no middle ground. If we get it wrong on this point, the whole will in time prove to be wrong.
Love His Word
Second, if we love God, it will first reveal itself in a love for what God says within His Word, the Bible. Sadly, many understand this only as a gathering of facts and information about God and about His Word. Sometimes they become extremely knowledgeable about the words in the Bible, without the slightest understanding about the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth! Consequently, their words and their life are marked by commands and rules; do’s and don’ts. They can tell you what to do, but have trouble telling who they know. But when one loves God’s Word because it reveals who God really is and the amazing love He has for us, it converts static religion into a sacred romance. You begin to talk far more about Him then about what one is supposed to do.
Love One Another
Third, as a consequence of being deeply loved, we become deep lovers of others. Not because we find others particularly lovely, but rather because God’s love is desperate to find a person and place to express itself. We find ourselves, as Paul put it, compelled to love. We serve, we sacrifice, we fellowship, we share, we find ourselves doing all those things that the Bible says become characteristic of people who know and therefore love God.
The following column was compiled and written by Shane Idleman. It is excerpted from his most recent book ONE NATION ‘ABOVE’ GOD. His comments give a solemn perspective on how things have changed in 229 years.
“This 4th of July, let’s reflect on how far we have drifted from the original intent of early Americans—“A nation which does not remember what it was yesterday, does not know what it is today, nor what it is trying to do” (Woodrow Wilson). Consider the following:
Then: First introduced in 1766, William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws, served as the legal reference for the Founders, as well as for many early American lawyers. Blackstone’s commentaries were deeply rooted in biblical principles. It’s been said that Blackstone was the first to use the phrase, “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.”
Now: “It is unconstitutional for students to see the Ten Commandments since they might read, meditate upon, respect, or obey them.”
Then: John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, said, “Unto Him who is the author and giver of all good, I render sincere and humble thanks for His manifold and unmerited blessings, and especially for our redemption and salvation by His beloved Son.”
Now: In 1995, a District judge in Texas decreed that any student saying the name of Jesus during school graduation ceremonies would be jailed.
Then: Noah Webster, the Founding Father of American Scholarship and Education, said, “In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government, ought to be instructed.” He believed so strongly in this that he often gave Scripture references when he defined words in his colossal work: American Dictionary of the English Language.
Now: Many students are criticized when they read their Bibles in public, or at school. Christianity is challenged, mocked, and ridiculed while most other beliefs are accepted and embraced. Sadly, in order to be politically correct, Noah Webster’s Scripture references have been withdrawn from recent editions.
Then: The Delaware Constitution initially required that everyone appointed to public office must say, “I do profess faith in God the Father, and in the Lord Jesus Christ his only Son.” Many other Constitutions such as Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia, and Connecticut all acknowledged their reliance on God.
Now: Those who run for office and profess a faith in Jesus Christ are viewed as fanatical and/or extreme, and are often criticized by the media.
Then: Early Americans felt that it was impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible. They often petitioned God for guidance, direction, and encouragement. Fisher Aimes, author of the First Amendment, openly declared, “Should not the Bible regain the place it once held as a school book?”
Now:Bible displays, as well as Ten Commandment monuments, are often ruled unconstitutional in courthouses and other public places. Mr. Aimes would no doubt disagree with these rulings.
Then: In 1790, Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, said this about public schools, “But the religion I mean to recommend in this place is that of the New Testament.”
Now: Most schools avoid doctrines of the New Testament. In Roberts v. Madigan (1989), for example, the court ruled: “It is unconstitutional for a classroom library to contain books which deal with Christianity, or for a teacher to be seen with a personal copy of the Bible at school.” (Granted, courts have ruled that the Bible can be used, in some cases, for historical and literary purposes.)
Then: “The first and primary duty of government is to protect innocent human life” (Thomas Jefferson). “Nobody has the freedom to choose to do what’s morally wrong” (Abraham Lincoln).
Now: If the names of all the babies who have been aborted since the early 1970s were placed on a monument (much like that of the Vietnam Memorial Wall), it’s been estimated that the monument could span over 35 miles. Although many protest war, very few speak out against abortion. The womb is no longer the safest place, but one of the most dangerous. What a travesty!
Unbelievable! And we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. It’s extremely disheartening to see how far we have drifted from God’s word. Let us not forget: America did not produce the blessings of liberty and freedom—liberty and freedom produced the blessings of America. Without question, repentance, prayer, and humility before God is our only hope.”
Another stop I made on my return trip from Russia and Germany was a visit to the site of Buchenwald, a Nazi concentration camp situated just a few miles from the quaint city of Weimar. To tell you the truth, I had a bit of trouble finding it. My impression was that the locals would like to pretend that Buchenwald never existed.
Weimar is the former cultural capital of Germany. Buchenwald was a notorious death camp. It is this stark juxtaposition of culture and cruelty that is the first of many ironies one confronts on a tour of Buchenwald.
Buchenwald was the first concentration camp built by the Germans prior to World War II and served as the prototype for scores of others such as Dachau, Treblinka and Auschwitz. Buchenwald is where the SS trained their prison guards and perfected their art of cruelty. It was at Buchenwald that the great Christian leader Dietrich Boenhoeffer was imprisoned in 1944. (He died there just two weeks before the camp was liberated by the US Army.) In fact, some 1,500 pastors were imprisoned and murdered by the SS at Buchenwald, simply because they had spoken out against the Nazi’s.
Buchenwald was reserved for the highly skilled. They arrived from other camps such as Auschwitz (where the healthy had been put to work and the very young, old and infirm had been sent to the gas chambers) destined to be worked to death or starved to death: fodder for the German war machine.
Built in 1937, the camp was used initially to confine political prisoners who posed a threat to the new National Socialist Party (NAZI). But soon after the beginning of World War II, Buchenwald increasingly was used to house “undesirables” from all over Europe, including Jews and Gypsies.
The camps in general also provided a means for personal enrichment—for the Nazis. As prisoners arrived, their possessions were taken and catalogued. It was never assumed that any prisoner would actually leave the camp and recover his possessions. The Nazi effort was partially funded through the death plunder amassed at Buchenwald and other camps.
Altogether, 51,000 people died in the six years Buchenwald was in operation. It housed 20,000-30,000 prisoners at a time. Prisoners worked in an armaments factory at the camp, and were rented out to factories and businesses (as portrayed in the movie Schindler’s List). Even though the camp’s primary mission was not execution but slave labor, the Nazis also carried out executions and medical experiments on thousands of Russian prisoners of war being held there. Nazi doctors injected the prisoners with various bacteria, viruses, hormones and other lethal elements to study how they reacted.
I was struck by how orderly and ordinary it all was. The camp was run with characteristic German efficiency: Neat rows of buildings, disciplined prisoners, productive projects.
The guards had their pressed uniforms and their shiny jackboots and their obvious esprit de corps. They even had a zoo for the staff and their families to enjoy. Every effort was made to give an impression of order and efficiency. But that carefully engineered impression hid a level of brutality that is virtually incomprehensible.
My first impression? The reality of Birchenwald and the other German death camps plainly illustrates that even the most perverse kind of wickedness can be made to look ordinary. After all, years of Nazi propaganda had convinced a generation of ordinary, generally “God-fearing” people that Jews and other “undesirables” were not really people like you and me: they were Untermensch: sub-human. The German public was trained to believe that Jews and others were social vermin who needed to be first controlled, then isolated, and eventually eradicated.
It is the same kind of mass training that has allowed abortion to become so commonplace; so orderly and so ordinary. When a pregnant woman is investigating her “choice,” the child she carries is simply referred to as a fetus, a product of conception, a mass of cells… and therefore destroying it is presented as no more wrong then smashing a bug on the sidewalk. The “procedure” is described in a strictly clinical fashion and performed by medical professionals using all the latest technology. What other “choice” is there?
Sure, a few extremists will still insist that we are killing babies; will point out that like bugs, babies have life and feelings. But such objections have been suffocated under the cloak of convenience. After all, both bugs and babies could ruin a young girl’s life! Today, over 35 years since Roe v. Wade, it all seems so… normal. One million, two million… 50 million abortions later, most of us have simply stopped counting. And caring.
The second impression I carried away from my visit to Buchenwald was how ordinary were the SS troops that ran it. While they killed by day, they bounced babies on their knees by night. They listened to fine music in the den, talked about the price of potatoes in the market with their wives, and slept peacefully in their beds at night. And though they boasted of their superiority, behind all the swagger and spit-polish, they were an undereducated, underachieving, and quite uninspiring collection of guys.
Buchenwald’s camp commander, Colonel Karl Koch, typified the SS troops in general: before joining the Nazi Party, he was a failed insurance salesman. Broke and without a future, his Nazi affiliation magically transformed him into one of the leaders of the Master Race. Koch even assembled photographs, intending to chronicle his “rise to power” for posterity. His ascendancy was short-lived, however: even the Nazi’s couldn’t stand him and eventually hung him for stealing.
As I viewed photographs of the camp, I studied the faces of the guards. It appeared that few could have been more than 18 years of age. I was struck by the likelihood that many hadn’t even kissed their first girl before they had killed their first man. (But the first killing must have been hard, for they quickly developed a very clever device that enabled them to shoot a man through his skull without having to look him in the eyes.)
What united these men was not ideology or intellect. They were bound by things much more feral: Pride, Power, Position, Possessions. In the early days of the SS, men from all walks of life sought admission into this elite corps. Women swooned as SS troops marched by in parade formation, their distinctive black uniforms adorned with dual lightning-bolt insignias and bright silver skulls. Those privileged to wear the SS uniform were the most superior of the superior race. And nobody messed with them. The very mention of the SS broadcast waves of fear.
As I pondered these dark facts, I was reminded of something Jesus once said:
"For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them" (Matthew 13:15).
The word translated calloused is pakh-oo'-no, and it means to make thick, to make fat; to make stupid (to render the soul dull or callous).
Jesus recognized something about us that we often fail to see in ourselves. We have an amazing and frightening capacity to adjust and adapt to anything, even murderous brutality. We can become so hardened through the repetition of an action, that we no longer feel any discomfort or pain when experiencing it. A tough callus grows over the heart and soul. Paul described it like this:
"You must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more" (Ephesians 4:17-19).
If you are a guitar player or a ditch digger, you probably view calluses as your friends. But stop playing regularly, and they will go away. In the same way, when we stop doing certain things, a new sensitivity returns to our lives.
Before I came to Christ, my heart and soul were covered with calluses. Hurts, insults, disappointment, betrayals, lies, thefts and the like had layered over my heart so that I was insensitive to much of what was right and wrong, good and evil. But when I came to Christ, he began my softening process by “commanding” me to stop doing certain things. I had trouble stopping, because I had come to trust in those behaviors. They felt normal, comfortable. But as I obeyed, I also began to soften. I started to see my actions as God sees them. I started to feel the hurt that others felt. And then I began to experience remorse, sorrow and deep regret over those things that had I done in what Paul described as “ignorance and unbelief” (1st Timothy 1:13). Not only did I no longer want to do those things, but also I grieved and sorrowed when I saw others doing them and suffering under them.
But it didn’t stop there. Even today I am being forced to look at thoughts and attitudes that have been comfortably packed into the inner places of my life. God has a way of bringing them to the surface… making them uncomfortable. Now I find myself praying that God would work deeply in my life; that he will make me more and more uncomfortable with those things that He is uncomfortable with.
So here’s my question for you: What calluses in your own life is God trying to soften? Let me give you hint. What do the people closest to you complain the most about in your behavior?
You see, you might just reject such criticism because you aren’t uncomfortable with what is being criticized. Maybe you simply don’t feel bad about these things because you have become hard—and insensitive to the Holy Spirit in that area of your life. Justifications, rationalizations, explanations… all have enabled you to disregard the criticism.
Granted, your critics might be wrong. They may be projecting their own issues on you. Or, just maybe, they have identified an atrocity that, just like the fresh-faced SS guards, you should never have become comfortable with. Something to think about, isn’t it?
As most of you know, this weekend is Memorial Day weekend. How many of us even realize what the day is meant to commemorate? The tradition began during the Civil War, when widows and others would go to cemeteries to “remember” their loved ones who had died in battle. After the Civil War it was officially declared an annual day of observance.
But in 1971 the Congress in its pre-eminent wisdom, passed the National Holiday Act. By that one act, they turned an annual observance into a three-day holiday. Soon most Americans saw it as just another extended weekend for fun and relaxation. The true meaning of the day has slowly slipped into obscurity. People no longer intentionally stopped what they were doing to remember those who had given their lives for our national freedom.
It is a tragic example of how easy it is to let important things slip. A few years back I spoke at a conference in England. It was held in an old church that had been turned into a music school. But all around were the reminders of the Great War (WWI). Tombstones and memorials to the scores of young men from that one congregation, who gave their life, were chiseled in stone, both inside and outside the building. Yet now, like the church they had once worshipped in, their sacrifice was forgotten.
Churches often suffer from the same kind of erosion. Where there once was a community of believers who regularly met to share in their mutual fellowship with God, there is now a new generation who knows only the formalities of the faith. They have, as Paul described it, “a form of Godliness, but do not know its power.” Still, they continue to retain the structure, because… that’s what they were raised to do. But they too will be replaced by a new generation; one that doesn’t have the same loyalty or sentimentality with the past. When it is their turn, they will forsake the old structure and its religious systems, because they hold no meaning for them.
That my friend is how apostasy happens: We slide from fellowship, to formalism; and eventually forsake the Truth all together.
On the same overseas trip that included my time in St. Petersburg, Russia (see the blog for May 9, 2009), I also visited Germany. While there, I had the opportunity to tour the ancient city of Wittenberg. Those with a Lutheran background probably recognize Wittenberg immediately as the city of Martin Luther, the key figure in that great social and religious upheaval known as the Protestant Reformation.
While key to the Reformation, Luther’s work in general had a revolutionary impact on the world of his day. Prior to that time, Latin was the language of theology, and only scholars knew Latin; thus the common man’s knowledge of the Bible was limited to what the clergy told him about it. Additionally, Europe at that time existed as thousands of small principalities, each with its own regional dialect. Even among the smaller geographically related regions, language had no universally accepted structure—oral or written. Illiteracy also added to the problem of communication, being widespread even among the nobility.
Luther wrote numerous tracts and used the relatively new process of printing to put them inexpensively in the hands of the people. He had an amazing ability to take complex theological concepts and distill them so that the average man could understand them. By making his writings widely available through print, he broke the monopoly the Roman clergy had upon theology and learning—not to mention religious instruction.
Luther’s goal was to put God’s Word itself into the hands of the common man. While in hiding in the Wartburg Castle in Eisenbach (since his theological concepts emphasized Scripture rather than Papal authority, he had been labeled a heretic by the Roman church and was a hunted man), Luther single-handedly translated the entire New Testament from Latin into German in just eleven months.
Shortly afterward, this German New Testament was published in Wittenberg by Luther’s good friend Lucas Cranach. The initial printing consisted of a modest 3000 copies; within a few months, all were sold. Eventually, some 100,000 copies were printed. The Bible had been put in the hands of the average man, and the Reformation became unstoppable.
Luther’s religious writings had a profound impact upon literacy and learning overall. He made the printed word available to everyone; furthermore, as some of the first non-Latin printings, his writings functioned as a standard for German grammar and spelling. For this effort, Luther is known as the father of the German language. There is also no question that Luther’s work acted as the foundation for other translators, each one similarly attempting to provide a Bible in the common language of his own people.
What struck me most as I visited Luther’s home and the institutions that grew from his ministry was his absolute, unbending commitment and devotion to the Bible as God’s inerrant Word. Like many after him, he was not only committed to living it, he was also willing to die for it; and almost did on several occasions.
But an examination of his life and legacy prompts the question: What kind of conditions produce a man like Luther? Four things come to my mind: Timing, teamwork, technology and tenacity!
Timing: By this I mean God’s timing. A better term is providence: The timely preparation for future eventualities. Luther’s era was a critical nexus point that combined the right people, politics, and technology together in the right place at the right time. As the wise Mordecai explained to Queen Esther….
“And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14)
Initially, Luther hated Wittenberg, moaning that he has been sent to the “end of the earth.” But it was there that he was tasked with teaching the Scriptures. The only problem was that he had never read the Bible! So being a good monk, he began to study the Scriptures. And as Luther studied, he was increasingly confronted with a deeply disturbing fact: Rome was not following the Bible.
When he posted his 95 Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church (also known as Castle Church), Luther was not attempting to break with Rome. He was simply following the practice of the scholars of his day: he posted his conclusions as an invitation to debate. Little did he realize the firestorm his ideas would ignite.
Coincidentally, Frederick III, Elector of Saxony (one of the most powerful men in Europe), ruled from Wittenberg. Fredrick was an extremely devout Catholic and owned the largest collection of religious relics in Europe. However, he resented the Pope’s interference in the affairs of his kingdom and resisted it—the result being that Rome’s influence and power in Wittenberg were somewhat muted. Also, as a renowned center of learning under Luther, Wittenberg generated a great deal of revenue for Frederick. He had no reason and no desire to silence Luther or get rid of him. This made Wittenberg the optimum place at that time for Luther and his volatile ideas.
Another ”coincidence” of timing: Philip Melancthon, the great Greek and Hebrew scholar, had been brought by Fredrick to Wittenberg to teach. Before long, Melancthon became Luther’s closest friend and confidante. And as a co-worker, he contributed invaluable assistance to Luther’s ongoing translation work.
Lastly, the famed artist and printer Lucas Cranach was involved. He not only provided the presses to print Luther’s Bibles and tracts, but also painted likenesses of him that allowed Luther’s fame to travel throughout the continent. Cranach’s paintings caused Luther to literally become the poster child of the Reformation.
Teamwork: In God’s perfect timing, four lives miraculously and providentially intersected in the same place at the same time, to produce one of the greatest cultural explosions in history. But these four men were only the nucleus of the event. Luther knew that life was short. If what he was striving to build was to survive his lifetime, he needed to pour himself into the lives of others who had a like purpose and passion. A growing number of godly men and women surrounded Luther, sharing both his passion for God’s Word and his desire to communicate it to the world.
In fact, within a very short period of time, Wittenberg’s population of 3,000 swelled to over 6,000: Three thousand young men from all over Europe had flooded the city to study under Luther and Melancthon. In time, these like-minded men carried the ideas of the Reformation far and wide.
Technology: Even though the printing press had been invented 67 years earlier, its reach was limited. Like Guttenberg’s Bible, most literature was printed in Latin and decipherable only by scholars. Luther appropriated this new technology and applied it in a revolutionary way. Not only did he print in the common language, he did so in a much less expensive format. In every way, Luther’s New Testament and his other writings were designed to be accessible to the common man. Luther’s approach was as revolutionary in his day as the computer or Internet has become in ours.
Tenacity: This final element of Luther’s success is the one that I consider to be the most pivotal. Luther could be stubborn, crass, and even wrong at times. But he was no quitter, especially if he was convinced that he was on the side of God’s Truth!
It is hard for us to imagine how daring and dangerous it was for Luther to defy the power of Rome. The Roman church was not just a religion, it was also a political and military power – throughout virtually the entire known world. Few dared oppose it. That is why Luther’s words still ring out as a testimony to those who choose to stand in faith against all opposition: "Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir. Amen." ("Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.")
I thank God for Martin Luther. He wasn’t perfect. He sometimes was extreme. But more than any other man of the Middle Ages, he changed the world!
But how did Luther do it? It was a combination of God’s perfect timing, of teamwork, and of Luther’s innovative use of an existing technology. He was a man who was willing to think outside the box.
But it was his tenacity that made the greater difference. Once he found the Truth, he refused to give it up or compromise it. That’s how he differs from most of us: We give up too soon, too easily, too often. Unlike Luther, we value our life and our comforts more than we do God’s Truth.
Which makes me wonder: What have we missed out on? What victories and divine moments have we let go of because holding fast became too difficult, took too long, or was too costly? Have we been attentive to the wrong voices? Listen to the voice of another great man of tenacity and faith, written in the waning moments of his life on earth to a young man just beginning his ministry:
But you, man of God, flee from all this (love of money), and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. (1st Timothy 6:10-12)
The apostle Paul’s words to Timothy are God’s Word to us all: don’t be distracted by the world’s temptations and expectations—be a man (or woman) of God and take your stand—even when it means you must fight for it. That’s what Martin Luther did—and God then did something miraculous and magnificent through him!
As I write this, I am in transit to St. Petersburg, Russia, on my way to the fourth annual Russian Calvary Pastors and Leaders Conference.
This year’s topic is the Book of Hebrews. Each main speaker will handle a separate chapter. This year, Gayle Erwin of Servants Quarters; Danny Hodges of CC St. Petersburg, Florida; and David Guzik of CC Bible College, Seigen, Germany will be joining me as conference speakers. Several Russia pastors will also teach a variety of workshops.
Why is a conference like this important? It is a bit hard for Americans to understand how different Russia is from the United States when it comes to religion. Russia remains largely unreached for Christ. In fact, most Russians have only attended church once or twice in their lifetime – and have never heard the message of the Gospel.
In reality, Russian religion is more cultural than personal. Even though Russia claims to be a Christian nation, 65% are Russian Orthodox and 30% are atheists. All other religions make up the remaining 5%. As for evangelicals, they comprise only about 1% of the population, many having emigrated when the Iron Curtain came down.
Christian conferences are rare in Russia. Additionally, there are few Christian bookstores or radio programs, and the Internet remains too costly for many citizens. Therefore, such conferences, with good teaching and free resources, are highly valued by Russian believers.
Over the last few years, however, the conference has been the subject of controversy. There are some in Russia who see our efforts as a threat to their own. This is sad and probably not worth mentioning, other than to say that only Satan can be pleased with such things. We pray that God will soften these hearts with his grace and love, and we also appreciate your prayers as we begin this fourth conference. We believe it serves as a welcome and vital resource for Calvary and other Russian pastors.
How did Calvary Chapel of Spokane come to sponsor this event? For many years (along with other Calvary Chapels), Calvary Spokane has taken outreach groups to various cities in Russia, holding concerts and doing street ministry. Through this, many have been saved, and God has raised up Russian pastors to lead many of the resulting churches.
Three Russian pastors in the St. Petersburg area recognized a need for a conference that would be open to Calvary Chapels throughout Russia, as well as to other evangelical churches. They felt the widely scattered pastors could gain great encouragement through an event that would bring them together for fellowship and instruction.
When approached with the idea, we at Calvary Spokane saw it as a wonderful means of equipping and encouraging Calvary’s Russian pastors and leaders; we were eager to sponsor the event. Several volunteers from our church even pay their own way each year to help with the conference—and other church members also offer financial support.
Why hold the conference in St. Petersburg? As the sponsoring church, we wanted to bless the attendees: we considered it important to select a setting that was attractive and comfortable and that served good food. Additionally, we wanted to present the attending families with an opportunity to vacation in Russia’s most glamorous city. (Most Russian could never afford to visit St. Petersburg, which is often called “The Venice of the North”—and is priced accordingly!) Calvary Spokane also underwrites some of the conference cost so that the Russian pastors can attend—and can bring their families—without straining their finances.
What is our goal as a sponsoring church? Mission churches need to go through three stages if they are going to truly succeed. These stages are called C-1, C-2, and C-3.
C-1 is the first phase: a church planted by foreigners. The format and structure are drawn from the “missionary perspective”: for instance, the language is English, and a translator translates the worship and teaching so that the non-English speakers can understand what is going on. This is how the Calvary Chapels in Russia began: with American pastors teaching in English and leading their flocks with the assistance of translators.
C-2 is the second phase of development. The format stays the same, but the worship and teaching are done in the native language. Most of the Calvary churches in Russia are in this stage: the style of service is very similar to that of a Calvary Chapel located in California. Even many of the worship songs are the same—just translated into Russian.
C-3 is, in my opinion, the ultimate ideal. This is when the mission church becomes fully a native church. Both style and substance grow seamlessly out of the local language and culture. The leadership, ministry, and financial needs of the church are fully the responsibility of its members. It is at this point that the church begins to have its greatest impact.
The great draw of the C-1 & C-2 churches is that they are “foreign” and “novel.” But over time, the foreign inevitably becomes less interesting and the novelty wears off. Additionally, most churches in those phases are still financially dependant upon foreign sponsorship, which hampers the ability to mature into a fully functioning national church. (Such support, no matter how well-meaning or altruistic, creates boundaries and obligations—or the assumption of them—that can hinder and hobble the ministry, especially when the sponsor is a half a world and a whole culture away.)
Because we believe that effective missions is about working yourself out of a job –producing C-3 churches—each year we have tried to turn more and more of the planning and organizing of this conference over to the local churches.
We can already envision that day when our help will no longer be needed at all: this year the local churches have been responsible for all of the planning, including the selection of speakers, topics, facilities, registration, etc. Even our role as a financial underwriter is diminishing.
Our hope is that through the conference, Calvary Spokane is furthering the process to equip, encourage and enable Russia’s pastors to lead their churches independently—without foreign sponsorship—becoming more and more dependant upon Christ alone as the true and only Head of their church.
Recently I’ve received numerous inquires about the newest Christian-crossover bestseller, The Shack. Specifically there have been two questions:
Let me begin by addressing the first question. There are some positives in the book. I appreciate Young’s effort to distinguish between religion & relationship. The author has a valid concern about the tendency of Christians to confuse the two. Culture and natural prejudice often cause us to view the Bible through a very narrow lens, which often results in the distortion of several key points.
This is why Young uses non-traditional ways of representing God in Mac’s life. He is not the first to do this; the Bible itself employs human imagery to portray God’s heart. But this should be done with great caution: any time we try to portray the invisible qualities of God (Romans 1:20) in tangible ways, we are in danger of "exchang(ing) the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man" (Romans 1:23).
Secondly, I think his effort to explain how a loving God can allow horrible tragedy is commendable; and for some, even helpful. I don’t think we should discount the responses of those who say they were helped by reading the book.
On the other hand, neither should we ignore the fact that some non-Christians have been deluded into thinking they don’t need to repent because of The Shack’s subtler message of universal reconciliation. It is this point that has led a growing list of Christian leaders to speaking out against the book. Young makes some definitive theological pronouncements that he admits are intended to foster a redefinition or new understanding of Christianity. Because, according to the main character, “Everything I learned in seminary was all wrong.”
In order to “challenge our thinking” Young takes a great deal of artistic liberty in portraying the way God reveals Himself to Mac. God the Father appears as a large African-American woman; Jesus is presented as a Jewish man; and the Holy Spirit is described as an Asian woman. My guess is that I’m not alone in finding such a representation of God more of a hindrance in understanding Him than an aid.
But far more disturbing are some of the statements Young puts into the mouth of the Godhead, such as:
Young admits that such statements are not just a slip of the pen, but represent his own very unorthodox doctrines—views that he flagrantly invites his readers to embrace.
The first doctrine is called ultimate reconciliation. This is the belief that in the end, everybody will be saved; no one will be punished. In a radio interview, he offered the following explanation of his position:
“If God can figure out a way to save everybody and ultimately reconcile everybody, I’d be for that… I personally hold to the idea that everyone was included in what Jesus did on the cross… We’re all included in that; he didn’t just die for a few of us…. I don’t believe in the idea of a hell that is real…”
When he states, “everybody will be saved,” he means without any preconditions like receiving Christ. In his opinion, all people everywhere—even those who reject Christ—will eventually be saved. He goes on to argue that the Bible is “too ambiguous” on the topic for us to “know for sure” who will be saved or lost. Therefore, he reasons, we should not be dogmatic on such topics as who goes to heaven or what hell is really like.
His second major doctrinal error follows logically upon the first: He rejects quite strongly the idea of Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement. (This doctrine teaches that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners; God imputed the guilt of our sins onto Christ, and He, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve.)
Young believes that because God is love, He punishes no one, even and including Jesus. For Biblical Christians this is a big deal. After all, this is the very heart and soul of the Gospel message. It also explains why men like Chuck Colson, Chuck Swindoll, Mark Driscoll and a score of others have declared The Shack to be heresy.
This brings me to the second question I am asked about The Shack: “Why did some very prominent and well-respected Christians endorse the book?” To be honest, I don't really know. But I think it is unfair to condemn someone because of the company they keep. I would suggest that if you really are concerned, ask them yourself. They may tell you they made a mistake. After all, we all do.
Which underscore an important point: None of us are beyond being misled. Nor should we fail to check every book against the Book of Books, the Bible. This is especially true when books make the bestseller list. In fact, those books should be under double suspicion! (Luke 6:26)
If you would like to hear the interview with William Paul Young that I quoted from earlier, click on the link below: