Warning Lights for Highly Vulnerable Leaders (part 1)

A few weeks ago, I attended a retreat with a group of pastors in our network.  The weather couldn’t have been more perfect, nor the location for that matter.  We were situated in Akaroa, a beautiful little town on the Banks Peninsula, southeast of Christchurch.  We were all tired after a busy year of ministry.  It was great to grab a couple of days together where we had no responsibilities except eat, sleep and have an open heart to what God might be saying to us.

The highlight for me was the session by Rowland Forman called “Ten Warning Lights for Highly Vulnerable Leaders.”  We all know about warning lights.  I have one on my stove top at home.  It glows red when the element under the glass is still hot.   You have a few warning lights on the dashboard of your car.  They are there for your safety as well as your passengers.  They are not to be ignored.

There are warning lights also in our spiritual lives.  We all have them; not just pastors.  Ignore them and not only will you suffer, but also those you lead.  These particular “warning lights” from Rowland were so good I wanted others to be aware of them.  Withi his permission, I am sharing them in this post.

Pondering over the warning lights. Rowland is seated on the far right.

WARNING LIGHT #1: PRIDE

I could have spent the entire morning just thinking on this one.  In every sphere of Christian life and ministry, pride is our greatest enemy and humility our greatest friend.  Pride was the first sin – among angels and men.  Pride is the essence of all sin, and it is the sin that God finds most offensive.  Why does God hate pride so much?  Charles Bridges summed it up well, “Pride lifts up the heart against God. It contends for the supremacy with him.”

Rowland writes:

“The story of King Uzziah, recorded in 2 Chronicles 26 always gets my attention, as I think of my propensity to listen to my own press [I underlined that one with my pen].  In verses 1-14 of this chapter, Uzziah was on a roll.  He reigned successfully for 52 years.  He was in touch with God, famous and creative [a pastor’s dream].  Verse 15 records a turning point – he was marvellously helped of God until he became aware of his own power.  No longer would he listen to the reproofs of those closest to him, and he ended his days as a lonely leper.”

3 questions were posed to us:

  • Which aspects of Uzziah’s pridefulness do you do you identify with?
  • What are some signals that indicate you may be more prideful than you realize?
  • How will you respond to those signals?

I found these questions deeply convicting.  There was more propensity toward pride within me than I realized.  I answered them by way of a prayer which I wrote down:

 “Lord, you know I am a prideful man.  I am a glory-seeker.  I love admiration and praise; I secretly covet both.  I like my accomplishments to be noticed; I want people to think well of me.  This affects my relationship with you, with my wife and my children, as well as my church, neighbours and everyone I come into contact with in the world.  Please forgive my sin and make pride odious to me.  Make it repulsive and revolting.  Help me see it in its subtlety so I may abhor it, repent of it and seek to glorify only you.”

WARNING LIGHT #2: PRAYERLESSNESS

Rowland writes:

“Imagine being able to tell whether something was accomplished through prayer or in the flesh.  The scary thing is that churches and ostensibly flourishing ministries can run without prayer.  Mark chapter 9 contains the story of the disciples’ inability to heal a demonized boy.  They couldn’t work out why they were so busy, yet so powerless.  Jesus; answer needs to become a motto in our churches: “This kind can only come out by prayer (some translations add ‘fasting’).”  Now there are some things I would try without prayer, but driving out demons is not one of them!”

Here were the questions for us:

  • What has our church accomplished lately that could only be attributed to prayer?
  • To what extent is this warning light flashing on your spiritual dashboard?
  • What steps do you need to take?

Before reading this I would have scored myself quite high on the prayer-chart.  I start each day with the Word and prayer.  I have a number of people and ministries that I pray for each day.  And yet, when it comes down to it, I’m often too busy serving God and writing sermons to spend time on my knees.

Here was my prayer:

“Lord Jesus, I want to grow in my dependence on you.  I am self-sufficient by nature.  I have too big of a view of my own abilities.  My “can do” attitude hinders me from coming to your throne on my knees and seeking your enabling.  Forgive me Lord and cause me to seek your sufficiency, all through the day.”

WARNING LIGHT #3: OVERSENSITIVITY

In our ministry amongst God’s people, we can often take things too personally – especially criticism.  We need to be reminded we are in a battle (Ephesians 6:12).  When a soldier is shot at, he isn’t surprised.  His feelings are not damaged.  He doesn’t raise his head above the parapet and say, “Did I say something wrong?” He is prepared for it; he’s in a war.  When we are oversensitive to the criticism of others, that’s a warning light that we take things way too personally.  It’s not about us.  It’s about God and his cause.

The question posed to us was:

  • To what extent are you over-sensitive to the criticism of others?

Here’s my prayer in response:

“Lord, whenever my feelings are hurt by criticism or negative comments, I forget who I am, and what you have called me to do.  I ought to be criticized and opposed if I am faithfully following you.  Give me a thicker skin and the ability to welcome criticism – for often it is correct and deserved. Use it to humble and refine me.  Amen”

I trust these were helpful to you as they were to me.  Perhaps you might think about writing out your own prayers (you are free to use mine!)  In my next post we have some more warning lights to cover:  Joylessness, fatigue and insensitivity.  I think you’ll find them very helpful also.

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Leadership exemplified

“Be an example to your men, in your duty and in private life.  Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don’t in your endurance of fatigue and privation.  Always be tactful and well-mannered and teach your subordinates to do the same.  Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide.” ― Erwin Rommel

I very rarely quote Word War II Generals in my blog, but I couldn’t resist this one.  The similarities with the duties involved with spiritual leadership, and pastoral ministry in particular, are indistinguishable.

  • Don’t let anyone despise your youth, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12)
  • But I consider my life of no value to myself; my purpose is to finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:24)
  • The Lord’s servant must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient, instructing his opponents with gentleness…” (2 Timothy 2:24-25) 

 

Sola Deo Gloria (our only ambition)

This is the final in a 5-part series commemorating 500 years of the Protestant Reformation.

The sixteenth century Reformers were all fighting for one thing: a recovery of the true gospel, which had been lost and obscured by tradition and man-made religion.  That gospel is summarised in 5 Latin phrases known as the “5 Solas.”   The word “sola” means alone.  The Roman Catholic Church taught that the authority of the church was based on Scripture and tradition and the Bishops and Popes.  The Reformers said no, it is sola Scriptura – Scripture alone.  Rome taught salvation was by faith plus human merit.  The Reformers said no, it’s sola fide – faith alone.  Rome taught forgiveness was mediated by way of the sacraments.  The Reformers said no, it’s sola gratia – grace alone.  Rome taught salvation is in Christ with the help of Mary, the saints and good works.  The Reformers said no, it’s solus Christus – Christ alone.

Now all this leads to a very natural and simple conclusion.  If salvation is by God’s grace alone by faith alone and in Christ alone – then who gets the glory?  God and God alone.  And that brings us to our focus today – Soli Deo Gloria.

Let’s start by looking at one of my favourite Psalms – Psalm 19.

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands. Day after day they pour out speech; night after night they communicate knowledge. There is no speech; there are no words; their voice is not heard. Their message has gone out to the whole earth, and their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 19:1–4)

Have you ever looked up at a night sky and seen all the stars and planets in dazzling array, and asked yourself,  “All those planets and stars – they all seem rather unnecessary.  There’s no one living on them.  They’re not being used for anything.  So, what are they for?”   I’ll tell you what they’re for: they are there to display God’s glory.  They are there so that we might see how great and glorious and majestic and powerful and AWESOME God is.  And seeing this is meant to evoke some response in us.  God wants us to look at what he has made and say,

“Look at what you have done!  Look at your power and glory on display.  God, you are really, really awesome!”

The Hebrew word for “glory”—kavod—is a fabulous word.  It literally means to be heavy, to carry weight, to be of substance.   The idea is the glory of God gives weight, meaning, and significance to life and creation.  All of life matters.  The universe matters.  The planets and stars – they are not random accidents that exploded out of nothingness.  They matter.  You also matter.  Your life is not a random accident.  You were created by God.  You carry weight (I don’t mean that literally!).  You have substance; you have meaning.  And unlike the planets and stars you are made in God’s image and likeness.  And you have the capability, unlike anything else in creation, to magnify, display, and broadcast to the world the glory of God.

 That’s your God-given purpose for existence – if you would only acknowledge and accept it.  And there-in lies the problem.

Human beings, for the most part, will not accept this purpose for their existence.  Instead of living to glorify God, we live to glorify ourselves.  Remember the story of Babel in Genesis 11.  “Come,” they said, “Let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top to the sky.  Let us make a name for ourselves.”  Let us do something great for ourselves.  Let us not make God look great.  Let us not ascribe glory to due his name.  No, let us ascribe glory due our name.

This is the human condition – we are in the name-making business.  We want to accumulate glory.  We don’t want to give glory – to God or anyone else.  But in the end, it never works.  Because we weren’t designed for this.  We just end up looking silly.

Imagine you’re part of the newly elected government in NZ and you have just been given a cabinet position.  You’re pleased as punch.  You’re sitting there in your office and your someone knocks on your door.  Wanting to look important, you pick up the phone and pretend you’re talking to Jacinda Adern.  You say, “Yes, Prime Minister I’ll get right on to it, you can count on me.”  You hang up the phone and say to the person standing in the doorway, “Yes, how can I help you?”  The person has a puzzled look on his face – “I’m here to hook up your phone.”   Seeking glory for ourselves never works.  We just look silly.

Yet people continue to do it.  Politicians do it.  Teachers and taxi-drivers do it.  Salesmen and students do it.  Priests and pastors do it.  We put on a show.  We act all bravado.  We play the act.  Because our souls are hungry for glory.  But we go seeking it in the wrong places for the wrong reasons.  The moon does not provide its own glow; it reflects the light of the sun.  We are designed to be glory reflectors; not manufacturers.

You see, it’s not about us.  The reason you and I exist; the reason Grace church exists, the reason the universe exists is not about us.  It’s about God.  Even our salvation – although we benefit greatly by it, it not about us.  It’s about God.

If you were to read through Ephesians chapter one you would find one long, massive list of blessings that God has given to believers.  We have been chosen, predestined and adopted; we have been redeemed and forgiven and God has lavished us with all wisdom and understanding – for what great purpose?  To what great end?  Three times Paul tells us in that chapter (v.6, 12 and 14) – it’s to the praise of His glorious grace.

You’re not the point of the universe; God is.  God did not create you to glorify you but to glorify himself.  Everything he does is for his glory.  When he saved you, it was for his glory, when he’s forgiving you, it’s to the praise of his glorious grace, when he’s loving and caring for you, it’s so that his goodness and kindness and mercy might be put on display to a watching world.

Soli Deo Gloria – for the glory of God alone.  It’s the battle cry of the Reformation.  It’s what the church is about.  It’s what you are about.  It’s what planet earth and the entire universe is about.  And it all makes sense and is made possible by way of the glorious gospel which tells us we can be redeemed, we can be restored, we can be made whole again by faith alone in Christ alone by God’s grace alone to the glory of God alone.

Living it out

So how do we apply this great truth in our everyday lives?  The answer lies with this one verse:

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Glorify God in the ordinary – that’s what Paul is saying here.  When you eat, eat to the glory of God. God is present with you, and he has given you food.  You did not earn it.  Eat it.  Savour it.  Don’t just shovel it in.  Don’t cram it down as fast as you can so you can’t remember what it was.  Chew on it and while you are chewing, think about how good God is.  Think about how good God has been to give this food to you.  There are people in the world who don’t have food.  Ask God to give them food, too.  Eat to the glory of God.

While you are driving, do it to the glory of God.  Look out your windscreen, and you see the mountains and hills or the reflection of the sky on the ocean or the estuary think about how good God is to place you in such a beautiful world.  Thank him for it.  Give praise to him for giving you the eyes to see and the heart to know it.

You can do this.  This is what makes a life glorious.  This life is your shot at glory.  Your office can be a place of shekinah glory.  Your car can be a place of glory.  Your kitchen can be a place of glory.  Everyday activities like paying your bills, having coffee with a friend, talking with people in your neighbourhood, reading a book, and sleeping can be glorious moments.

This is what the Reformers fought and died for.  They could not exist if anything else or anyone else in the world should steal God’s glory.

May we be men and women after their own hearts.

Note: this post is based on a series preached at our Church called “The 5 Solas.”  You can listen to it on our website here.

 

 

John Knox: the father of Presbyterianism

Although he gets some bad press today, Knox stands out as one of the giants of the Protestant faith, earning him a place on the Reformer’s Wall in Geneva, as well as the title “The Father of Presbyterianism.”   A sword carrying bodyguard who stood up to a corrupt church as well as the Queen; a preacher who gave sermons that made him seem to fly out of the pulpit – his story is one that great movies are made of.

Knox came from humble beginnings.  He was born in the year 1514 in Haddington, not far from Edinburgh and went to University of St Andrews to study law and theology.  In the year 1536 was ordained to the Priesthood.

About this time, things were heating up in Scotland.  Many were angry with the Catholic Church – and for good reasons.  It owned more than half the real estate and gathered an annual income of nearly 18 times that of the crown.  Furthermore, bishops and priests were living immoral lives.  Cardinal Beaton for example, the archbishop of St. Andrews, fathered 14 children through various mistresses (so much for celibacy!) While all this is going on, Lutheran literature is being smuggled into the country – which Knox gets hold of.

John Knox with George Wishart

In the early 1540’s Knox joins up with George Wishart, a courageous protestant preacher.  Wishart is a hunted man; his life is constantly in danger and Knox became his personal bodyguard, wielding a giant broadsword (called a Claymore in Scotland).  A standard sword had limitations, it would often get stuck in torsos leaving you vulnerable to having your head taken off.  A broadsword had two edges and you could cut yourself out of any difficult situation – if you are strong enough to wield it, which Knox was (this gives you a picture of the kind of man we are dealing with).

In 1546 Cardinal Beaton finally caught Wishart.  He was arrested, tried, strangled and burned.  In response a party of 16 Protestant nobles stormed the St. Andrew’s castle, assassinated Beaton, and hung his body over the wall (a reminder to us that not everything the Protestants did should be emulated!).  The castle was immediately put to siege by a fleet of French ships and, after a good fight, overrun.  The occupants were either killed, imprisoned or like Knox, sent to the galleys as slaves.

Knox spend 19 months on one of these ships experiencing severe hardship, which would affect his health in the years to come.  The French loved to taunt their captives, handing them images of the Virgin Mary and making them kiss them.  When Knox was told to do this, he refused and threw the image into the water saying, “Let our lady now save herself; for she is light enough; let her learn to swim” (This guy feared no one).

After he was released Knox spent time in England as well as Geneva where he met up with John Calvin and honed his preaching skills.  It was there that he published some of his most controversial tracts –  Admonition to England, where he lashed out on those who allowed Catholicism back in England, and The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, where he argued that a female ruler (i.e. English Queen Mary Tudor) was “most odious in the presence of God.”  That little piece did not earn him any favours!  And it was published in England the same day Queen Elizabeth the first – a faithful protestant, came to rule.  She took great exception to this and banned Knox from ever stepping on English soil.  We see again, these reformers were by no means perfect.

In the year 1559 he returned to Scotland and they became his best years.  His powerful preaching had a huge influence on the people of Scotland and many were saved.  One note taker said, “he made me so to [quake] and tremble, that I could not hold pen to write.”  It was Knox’s pastoral zeal and political sway that would eventually lead to the Reformed Protestant faith being ratified into law in Scotland.

John Knox preaching in St Giles Church

Knox was a man of great courage and determination.  He spoke plainly – sometimes abrasively, but loved God and the people he served.  It was Knox who famously prayed, “Give me Scotland, or I die” and said “A man with God is always in the majority.”  Robust words.  At his funeral, a man standing before Knox’s open grave said, “Here lies a man who neither flattered nor feared any flesh.” The legacy of John Knox persists to this day, including a heritage of spiritual descendants numbering more than 750,000 Presbyterians in Scotland, three million in the United States, and millions more throughout the world.

 

Solus Christus (our only mediator)

In the Middle Ages the priest was seen as having a special relationship with God and mediated God’s grace and forgiveness through the sacraments.  If you belonged to the Church of Rome, you would attend mass and work hard at being a good Catholic.  If you died before your soul was fully cleansed, you go to purgatory where you are purified through pain until you are ready to stand before God.  Now if you’re lucky, you might have a caring family who could purchase time off your sentence by making a donation to the Church by purchasing an indulgence.  After the indulgence was paid, the Catholic Church would dip into what is called the Treasury of Merit.

The Treasury of Merit (Latin: Thesaurus Meritorum) was like a bank account made up of all the good deeds of the saints of all time.  Jesus contributed to this considerably and so did Mary.  Being sinless (according to Rome), she gained far more merit than what was needed for heaven, and so the extra merit she acquired was added to the treasury, along with the merits of saints.  The Treasury of Merit is placed under the charge of the Pope, who alone possesses the keys, and he can dispense merit at his discretion.

You say, “So where did they get all this from?”  They made it up.  You won’t find any of this in the Bible.  The point here however is salvation according to Rome is summed up in two words: JESUS PLUS.  It’s Jesus plus the sacraments, Jesus plus good works, Jesus plus Mary and the Saints, and Jesus plus purgatory when all else fails.  It is against this that the Reformers stood up and said – “No, salvation is in Christ and Christ ALONE.”

Three Scriptures to remember

Let’s start with some Scripture.  The first one we are going to look at is Acts 4:12.

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12)

Well, that’s clear.  If you want to be saved, if you want to have your sins forgiven, there is only one person you can call upon and that is Jesus.  Calling upon St Anne won’t save you.  Calling upon Mary won’t save you.  Calling on Allah won’t save you.  Only calling upon Jesus will save you.  Let’s go to another Scripture: 1 Timothy 2:5

“For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5)

There is only One God – the Creator God, the God of the Bible.  And there is only one mediator who can give us access to God – the man Christ Jesus.  He is the perfect mediator because he is both God and man and understands both parties.  And he is the perfect mediator because he alone qualifies for the job.  That takes us to the third key Scripture: Hebrews 10:11-12

“Every priest stands day after day ministering and offering the same sacrifices time after time, which can never take away sins. But this man, after offering one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb 10:11-12)

Under the Old Covenant, the High Priest acted as the mediator.  He would go into the holy of holies and make atonement for sin.  He would intercede for the people.  God would hear his prayer, forgive the Israelites and care for and provide for them.  This was a temporary, provisional system.  As important as this work of the priest was in the OT, no priest and no animal could take away a man’s sins.  It was all pointing to a time in the future when God would send someone to be the perfect mediator.

To qualify for this role, Jesus needed to be two things:

  1. Firstly, he had to be a member of the human race (in order to represent us).
  2. Secondly, he had to be holy and sinless, which he was, because he was conceived without sin and lived a completely sinless life.

Jesus, by dying in our place and bearing the punishment for our sin, mediated for us.  He reconciled us to God.  And having been raised up again from the dead, he now sits at the Father’s right hand, making intercession for us.  His priestly work hasn’t finished; it continues.

Two truths to affirm

Flowing out of those three Scriptures are two truths we can affirm:

 Truth #1: Your salvation is secured by Christ alone.

Christians sometimes say, “Salvation is not earned.  It is free.”  That is not entirely true.  It is earned, just not by us.  Christ, by his perfect life and atoning death, earned our salvation.  He bought it.  He worked for it.   We often say, “I am saved by grace, not by works.”  But we should go further.  We should say, “I am saved by grace through faith in the works of Jesus Christ.”  It’s his work that saves you.  Faith doesn’t save you.  Faith doesn’t justify you.  It is faith in what Christ has done that saves you.

Think of Jesus Christ as the power station, faith as the power line, and we are the house.  Faith cannot create power; it can only transmit.  Whether your faith is great or small is immaterial.  Jesus said if you have faith of a mustard seed you can say to a mountain “go here” and it will move.  It is not the amount of faith that’s the issue but the object of faith.  Any amount of faith in Christ is sufficient to release from God’s power station cleansing power to save you.

Truth #2: Your salvation is sustained by Christ alone

Salvation is not just something that happens in the past, when you first repented and believed.  It is happening every day.  The bible teaches 3 tenses in salvation:

  • You were saved (Past)
  • You are being saved (Present)
  • You will be fully saved (Future)

Hebrews 10:25 says,

“Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, since he always lives to intercede for them.” (Heb 7:25)

Did you see that?  Save completely, or as some translations put it – save to the uttermost.  When Christ saves us, he ensures that he will keep us to the very end.  For he who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it until that final day (Philippians 1:6).

So, we’ve had our 3 Scriptures and our 2 affirmations.  Now for the one application.

One application to make

The application is this: Since Christ alone earned your salvation and Christ alone sustains your salvation, He is sufficient for your every need.

  • You don’t need any other saviour
  • You don’t need any other mediator
  • You don’t need any other redeemer or rescuer or liberator.

The mistake the Roman Catholic Church made was not that they didn’t believe that Jesus could save.  They did.  He just wasn’t enough.  You needed something more.  You needed Jesus plus the sacraments, Jesus plus encountering a relic, Jesus plus praying the rosary, Jesus plus prayers to the Saints and on and on it went.  It never ended, which is why no one was actually fully assured they were accepted by God or not.

We can easily fall into the same error today.  Be on your guard.  Because you will have people come and tell you that having Jesus is good, but to be really spiritual you need something more.  You need Jesus plus visions from God, Jesus plus speaking in tongues, Jesus plus social activism, Jesus plus positive thinking, Jesus plus a healthy self-esteem, Jesus plus a special encounter with God.

If you have Jesus, you have all that you need.  He is sufficient.  All the fulness of the Godhead dwells in Him Paul tells us, and in him you are complete (Colossians 2:9-10).  “Christ Alone” is something the Reformers stood for, lived for and even died for.  It was something that William Tyndale was willing to go to the stake for.

 “Understand me well, it is the blood of Christ that opens the gates of heaven and not your works… it is not by what you have done, but by what Christ has done for you.” 

Solus Christus – Christ alone.  Never forget it.  He is all that you ever need.

Note: this post is based on a series preached at our Church called “The 5 Solas.”  You can listen to it on our website here. 

 

William Tyndale: God’s Outlaw

How many bibles do you have in your house?  If you’re a Christian you’ll likely to have at least three or four.  If you dug around, you might find you have double that number.  Imagine having none.  Imagining not even having access to any bible (in your own language), anywhere in your city or even your country.  That was what it was like in England in the sixteenth century .  The bible was not in the hands of the people.  The Catholic Church forbade it, fearing the rise of “Lutheranism” in England.

Luther had been condemned by the Pope and his books were publicly burned.  That only increased interest.  Public censorship never really works.  I remember when the infamous rock band the Sex Pistols was banned from being played on public TV because they used the “f” word and said naughty things about the Queen.  Record sales sky rocketed, and EMI was laughing themselves all the way to the bank.  It was a bit like that with Luther’s books.  Popularity tripled, and they were smuggled through the ports in their thousands, fuelling a network of underground Lutheran groups.

One such group was known to gather in Cambridge in a little pub at King’s College called the White Horse Inn.  Among them was William Tyndale.  Tyndale was a brilliant linguist (he could speak seven languages) and wondered what good it was for people to hear Biblical readings and church liturgies in Latin when they only spoke English. “The only way to lead the people to God’s truth,” Tyndale said, “is to lay before their eyes the Scripture in their mother tongue.”[1]  He set about translating the Bible into simple English that the common people of England could understand.  But first he had to have that approved by the authorities.  So, in 1523 he travelled to London to seek official authorization for the translation project.  The Bishop (Cuthbert Tunstall) flatly refused.  But Tyndale wasn’t so easily deterred.  If he couldn’t translate the Bible in England, he would go elsewhere.

In 1524 he sailed for Hamburg, Germany.  He found a printer in Cologne who would print his work.  However, news of what he was up to got back to England and the press was raided.  He travelled to the city of Worms where he was able to publish a complete edition of the New Testament.  Six thousand copies were smuggled back into England in bales of cloth – an incredible feat at a time when the population of England at that time was at the most two and a half million.  The Bishops burned as many as they could find and even purchased more so they could destroy them.  The money made its way back to Tyndale who then used it to print improved editions!

The Gospel of John – William Tyndale 1525

Few today are aware of the sheer brilliance of Tyndale’s work.  It was a masterpiece of English prose.  It’s breadth, eloquence, rhythm and flow were equalled only by works such as Shakespeare and other masters.  The high honour often given to the King James Bible (which came 400 years later) really ought to be given instead to Tyndale, for the scholars of that great translation often took their cues from Tyndale’s earlier work.  We know this, because certain ringing lines and phrases made their way to the KJV and are retained in many modern translations today.  “God had found a voice,” one modern historian noted, “and the voice was English.”[2]

Have a look at some of these examples, which have become familiar to so many of us:

I am the light of the world
Rise, take up thy bed, and walk
So then faith cometh by hearing
For the just shall live by faith
Let this cup pass from me
Take, eat, this is my body
Blessed are the poor in spirit
Father glorify thy name
Christ in you the hope of glory
Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
I am not ashamed of the Gospel
A man after God’s own heart
Death, where is thy sting?
The glory of the Lord
Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might

Meanwhile, Tyndale, hunted like an outlaw, lived in hiding under false names and moved from city to city across Germany and the Low Countries—staying one step ahead of his pursuers. With the New Testament completed, he started translating the Old Testament into English.

Tyndale’s Strangling and Burning at the Stake – 1563

In May 1535, an English spy who had befriended Tyndale led him into a trap and turned him over to the authorities.  In October 1536, guards led William Tyndale out of the castle and tied him to a stake where he was strangled and burned.  Just before they put him to death, Tyndale said aloud, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”

Enter – Henry VIII

The “King” he was referring to was Henry VIII, who was known for his fearsome and often lethal temper.  He was also deeply religious, attending mass three times a day awarding himself the “Golden Rose” from the Pope.

Then came the problems with his marriage.  His first wife was Catherine of Argon who was not very successful with childbirth.  After many years she finally gave birth to a daughter, Mary.  But that was not much good to Henry.  He needed a son.  The obvious solution was to get another wife.  That meant finding a fault with the marriage and getting it annulled.  But the Pope wasn’t playing dice.  Henry decided that was good enough reason for England to break with Rome, which he accomplished through a lot of legal wrangling, with the help of Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  In the year 1534 the Act of Supremacy was passed, and Henry became supreme head of the church of England.  Soon after, Henry begins the process of dissolving the monasteries and stripping England’s churches of what he called ‘Romish abuses’ – pilgrimages and relics and images.  Protestantism was now in fashion in England, though not for theological, but solely political reasons.  Henry could now do what he wanted – which he always did, quite successfully.

A Sovereign greater than Henry

Yet God uses even rogues like Henry VIII to accomplish his purposes.  In the year 1538, just two years after Tyndale had died crying, “Lord, open the King’s eyes” Henry VIII required every parish church in England to make a copy of the English Bible available to its parishioners.  Churches were packed with people who came just to hear the Bible read.  So great was the excitement that priests complained of how, during their sermons, laypeople were reading the Bible aloud to each other (a modern pastor’s dream).  At a gathering of English churchmen, one bishop declared, “The people now know the Holy Scripture better than many of us.”

Turbulent years followed with England swinging from being Protestant to Catholic (under Queen Mary) and back to Protestant again.  Finally, things settled under the reign of Queen Elizabeth who managed to find a “middle way” between Catholicism and Protestantism.  The 39 Articles were instituted – the founding document of the Anglican Church.

What England lacked was a spiritual leader – a Luther or a Zwingli or a Knox.  Had Tyndale arrived on the scene just two years later he might have been that man.  Instead the Reformation was led politically, from the top down, rather than theologically, from the bottom up.  It would be the Puritan’s – the John Owen’s and Richard Baxter’s and John Bunyan’s who appeared on the scene later who would take the Reformation to its desired course.

William Tyndale really was God’s outlaw.  The beliefs he died for became the foundation for Protestant churches around the world. His example of unflinching faith in Christ, undying love for the Scriptures and unwavering work for the kingdom of God will never be forgotten.

For a bit of fun, have a look at this video from Rose Publishing on this quite remarkable period in history:

 

[1] Hannula, Richard M. . Heralds of the Reformation: Thirty Biographies of Sheer Grace (Kindle Locations 2290-2291). Canon Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Scruton, England: An Elegy, 99.

 

 

Sola Fide (our only means)

The greatest moment of the Reformation was not what Luther nailed on the castle doors of Wittenberg, but what he discovered later, while searching for truth.  Luther began to study the Scriptures, carefully, meticulously, line by line and then he came across a passage in Romans chapter 3 where it says that believers –

“are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… God presented him to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time so that he would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:24, 26)

Luther saw how God could forgive sin without compromising His justice.  God justifies – that is, he declares righteous those who put their trust in Jesus Christ to save.  Therefore, God remains just (in punishing sin) and the justifier (making sinners righteous) of those who believe.  This divine declaration is not in response to any spiritual or moral advances within the sinner.  It is a direct imputation of the righteousness of Christ by faith alone.  When Luther came to understand this doctrine, he thought he had entered the gates of paradise.

Well the Church of Rome wasn’t going to have a bar of this.  It sounded like heresy, and indeed was formally declared so later at the Council of Trent:

“If anyone saith that by faith alone the impious is justified in such wise as to mean that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtaining the grace of Justification…let him be anathema…”[1]

In case you thought you read that wrong, the Roman Catholic Church declares any person who believes he can be justified by faith – that is, made right with God by faith in Christ’s merits alone, let him be anathema.  Let him be cursed.

Why such strong words?  Because Luther’s findings strikes at the heart and soul of Roman Catholic teaching and doctrine.  More than that, it threatens its very existence.  If you read some of their doctrine, you’ll see why.  In the Question and Answer Catholic Catechism (which carries the official authorization of the Vatican) we find this:

Why did Christ establish the Church?
Christ established the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation.

How is the Church the universal sacrament of salvation?
The Church is the universal sacrament of salvation as the divinely instituted means of conferring grace on all the members of the human family.

What does the Catholic Church believe about the forgiveness of sins?
She believes it is God’s will that no one is forgiven except through the merits of Jesus Christ and that these merits are uniquely channeled through the Church He founded. Consequently, even as the Church is the universal sacrament of salvation, she is also the universal sacrament of reconciliation.

How does the Church communicate the merits of Christ’s mercy to sinners?
The Church communicates the merits of Christ’s mercy to sinners through the Mass and the sacraments and all the prayers and good works of the faithful.

Are the sacraments necessary for salvation?
According to the way God has willed that we be saved the sacraments are necessary for salvation.[2]

These words clearly express the official position of the Church of Rome.  There is no salvation apart from participation in the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church.  There is no other means of obtaining saving grace.

You may have heard in the past decade of an organization called the ECT.  ECT stands for “Evangelicals and Catholics Together”, an attempt (on the Protestant side) to bring unity between Protestants and Roman Catholics on the basis of shared affirmations.  How can you have unity on an issue like this, you may ask?  Well, that’s a good question.

The doctrine of justification has long been a dividing point between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The participants in the dialogue between Catholics and Evangelicals Together (ECT) recognized that agreement on this doctrine was vital.  After quoting Ephesians 2:8 this is what they came up with:

By faith, which is also the gift of God, we repent of our sins and freely adhere to the Gospel, the good news of God’s saving work for us in Christ. By our response of faith to Christ, we enter into the blessings promised by the Gospel. Faith is not merely intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life. We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).[3]

Taking these words at face value, they declare that agreement on the doctrine of justification has been reached between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals and both parties declare their assent to justification by faith alone.  What had separated Catholics and Evangelicals for nearly five hundred years has now been reconciled if the above statement is true.

But wait a minute here.  It’s not quite as simple as that.  And the reason lies with the differences regarding what is termed the formal cause of justification (what actually justifies the sinner).  The formal cause of justification is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner.  God declares the sinner to be righteous because the righteousness of Christ has been imputed, or put, to his account.  Luther called this imputed righteousness of Christ an alien righteousness because its origin was from outside of the individual.  The individual contributed nothing to this justifying righteousness; it was Christ’s righteousness alone.  The instrumental means of receiving Christ’s righteousness was by faith.  It was an adequate means because faith looked to Christ alone. This brought together two Reformation statements: Christ alone (solus Christus) and faith alone (sola fide).

This is in direct contradiction to what the Roman Catholic Church teaches.  It teaches that the sacrament of baptism infuses the righteousness of Christ into an individual.  As the individual co-operates with this infused righteousness it increases until the point in time when he or she becomes righteous and is accepted by God (a confusion, in Protestant terms, in the doctrines of justification and sanctification).

It is over the question as to whether the righteousness of Christ in justification is imputed or infused that the differences emerge.  Evangelicals do not deny that there is an infused righteousness in sanctification.  However, the question under discussion refers to justification, a person’s legal standing, and not sanctification, a person’s moral condition.

This is not theological hair-splitting.  Doctrine matters.  Words matter, because words affect our understanding of God, the gospel and our salvation.  If we get the words wrong (or we leave some out), we get the doctrine wrong.  And if we get the doctrine wrong, we get salvation wrong.  And that is something that affects effects each and every one of us for all eternity.

Sola Fide.  It matters.

If you have 5 minutes, have a look at this excerpt from a conference message where R.C. Sproul explains why it’s imperative to hold fast to the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  It’s worth listening to.

[1] The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. Found in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1910), Decree on Justification, Chapter XVI, Canon IX.

[2] John Hardon, The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism (Garden City: Image, 1981), Questions # 401, 402, 461, 462, 1119).

[3] Timothy George, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: A New Initiative,” Christianity Today, December,1997, p. 35.

Note: this post is based on a series preached at our Church called “The 5 Solas.”  You can listen to it on our website here.