Speaking out against Assisted Suicide

If you live in New Zealand, you will be well aware of another push to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide, led by David Seymour, leader of the ACT Party.  The NZ Parliament has just voted the “End of Life Choice Bill” through its 1st Reading and it is now being considered by the Justice Select Committee.  A similar bill went before the Select Committee two years ago and the majority of New Zealanders opposed it, so that it never made any ground (see my post “Please New Zealand, don’t support assisted suicide” in January 2016, along with my submission against the bill).

Well here it is again, with a new twist.  This new bill involves a law change.  If passed, it would allow assisted suicide or euthanasia by deadly drugs for virtually any New Zealander 18 years or older, who has a disability, a longstanding or ageing-related condition, a mental illness, or even severe depression.

Family First recently published a very helpful and informative leaflet on the issue, which helped clarify a lot of things that were on my mind.

“Safe euthanasia is a myth. Euthanasia will remove the ‘choice’ of many vulnerable people, and fails the public safety test. Most disturbingly, promotion of assisted suicide is a message that will be heard not just by those with a terminal illness but also by anyone tempted to think he or she can no longer cope with their suffering – whatever the nature of that suffering. This is the real risk to young and to vulnerable people, the disabled and elderly people if NZ follows the path of promoting – and allowing – assisted suicide” — Bob McCoskrie, National Director of Family First NZ.

To me it seems rather odd, and somewhat hypercritical for many of our country’s leaders and politicians to be making such a big issue about suicide (which is truly out of hand) and then, in the same breath, support assisted suicide for the weak and vulnerable.  Cannot people see this?

It is helpful in all of this, to have a clear understanding of what assisted suicide is and what it is not.  Have a look at this short video by Euthanasia-Free NZ – you’ll find it very helpful:

There are some clear warnings from other countries where a similar bill has been passed:

  • OREGAN:  In 2016, 48.9% of those who died under the Death with Dignity Act cited “burden on family, friends/caregivers” as a reason for accessing assisted suicide.
  • THE NETHERLANDS:  At least 23% of euthanasia deaths are not reported each year, despite reporting being required by law. In 2012, mobile euthanasia clinics began providing euthanasia to patients whose doctors had refused; by 2014, there were 39 of these clinics, again without recourse to Parliament for a change in the law.
  • BELGIUM:  In the region of Flanders, roughly 30% of all euthanasia deaths are non-voluntary; that’s roughly 1.8% of all deaths in the region.
  • CANADA:  Between June 2016 and June 2017, 1,982 people died under Canada’s Medical Aid in Dying (MAID) Law– 1,977 were euthanized, and 5 people committed assisted suicide.

Some may argue those stats are one-sided; there must be positives to this law change.  But even if these are one-sided, and given say – 10% margin of error, they are still very concerning.  Besides, I still personally struggle to see what “positive effects” such a law change may bring about.

As a Pastor, who has ministered to the elderly and dying for the past 24 years, I strongly oppose this law change.  As a family member, who has sat at my dying parent’s bedside, I oppose this bill.  As a citizen, who foresees massive problems where this could go in our nation, I oppose this bill.   And as a God-fearer, who will one day face his Creator and give an answer for how I stood (or did not stand) for truth and the sanctity of human life, I oppose this bill.

Here is the submission that I made to the Select Committee:

To the Justice Select Committee,

I am writing to oppose the End of Life Choice Bill.

Firstly, I oppose this bill for legal reasons. The bill, if passed, would require a major change to the Crimes Act – namely, that some people should be allowed to intentionally end the lives of other people. The ultimate choice and control will be with the system and its agents, not with the person who dies.

Secondly, I oppose this bill for social reasons. As a pastor, I devote a considerable amount of time caring for the elderly. Many of them struggle to get through each day as their health deteriorates; others suffer with debilitating disease. It pains me to see them in this condition. Yet I also see the love, care and support shown by family members, health professionals as well as people in my church and community. Such loving service is what makes communities truly human. It is right and good. What message are we sending to our children when, for the sake of convenience, the lives of the weak and suffering are simply terminated? I believe such a law would have a profound negative influence on our society.

Thirdly, I oppose this bill for ethical reasons. This bill, if passed, would violate one of the most important principles of our Judeo-Christian heritage (which was foundational to the forming of New Zealand society); namely, the sanctity of human life. EVERY life in this nation of our has inherent worth, able or disabled, healthy or sick.

Lastly, I oppose this bill for personal reasons. Several years ago, I sat at the beside of my dying mother, who was suffering terribly in the last stages of cancer. Her death was not sudden, but long and drawn out. The care given by the medical team at the hospice was exceptional. They monitored her pain levels constantly so that she was not in any discomfort. The drain on myself and my five siblings however, was noticeable. It meant time away from our jobs and family, loss of income and considerable emotional anguish. During this time, none of us were in a fit state to make rational decisions – particularly a decision on whether a person should live or die. We were simply coping. My concern, if such a bill was passed, is that individuals in a similar situation may act emotionally or reactively to end a loved one’s life, or the one suffering may feel pressured or coerced to request a premature death.

Some of the most precious time spent with my mother was during those final days. Hurts were healed, relationships were restored, and loving words were uttered. I believe every human being is put here on this earth by their Creator for a purpose. That purpose is not fully complete until their allotted days are over. We do not have the right, nor the wisdom or foresight, to aid in the ending on another individual’s life, whether they request it or not.

Respectfully yours,

Peter Somervell

Some helpful and informative websites:

You can make your own online submission 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.

Women of the Reformation: Katie Luther

When we look back on the Reformation – the great era of human history that changed our view of God and the gospel (as well as greatly influencing or modern world), most of the attention is on the men of the Reformation – Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Tyndale, Cranmer, and others.  That is all good and well because they were great leaders in their own right.  But hardly a whisper is made about some of the great women.

I started doing some digging and didn’t have to go very far.  I was shocked how many there were, and how little I knew about them.  There’s women like Katharina Schutz Zell (1498-1562) of Strasbourg, who developed women’s ministries and published a book of Psalms for women to sing.  She also took a lead role in organizing relief for 150 men who were exiled from their towns for their faith, and she wrote scriptural encouragements to the wives and children who were left behind.  What an invaluable woman to have around at that time!

There was also Jeanne d’Albret (1528-1572) who provided shelter for the Huguenots during the French Wars of religion, at great risk.  Her children were kidnapped and her life was continually threatened.  But that didn’t stop this fearless woman.  Known as “the little princess” she believed that like Esther, God had put her in a position to defend his people.

And then there’s Anna Bullinger (1504-1564) of Switzerland.  Along with raising 11 children, she welcomed vast numbers of Protestants and refugees into her home.  When she wasn’t busy with her own household, she visited the poor of Zürich, giving out food, clothes, money when she could.

But the woman I want to focus on today is Katherine van Bora, who became Luther’s wife.  I think it’s because her story is so lovely.  And I think she has a certain spark in her that appeals to me.  Here’s her story:

Ruins of the Nimbschen Cloister, from which Katherine von Bora fled

In the early hours one Easter morning, 12 runaway nuns climbed into empty fish barrels and were smuggled out of their convent.  At the receiving end was a renegade monk they had written to, imploring him to rescue them so they could leave the convent, marry and one day become mothers.  Their “hero” in waiting was none other than Martin Luther (you can already see where this is going).

So how did this all come about?  Well, after the Diet of Worms and Luther’s famous “Here I Stand” speech, things were taking an interesting turn.  Monks in Wittenberg were renouncing their vows of celibacy (a smart move) and marrying nuns who were leaving their cloisters (an even smarter move).  Luther’s tracts about the gospel were making their way into convents and Luther was giving nuns advice on how they might escape (this by the way, was not only a violation of the law but regarded as a capital offense).

Luther felt it was his responsibility to find husbands and homes for these women.  They were theologically minded.  They were literate.  And after coming to faith in Christ they became strong, committed Christians.  Martin started pairing them up and he got everyone married off except for Katherine.  Katherine had found someone she thought suitable, but he did not want her.  He said she was too feisty.

Some were suggesting he himself should marry Katherine, but Luther expected he would die a heretic any day and that would be unfair to her.  But then, much to everyone’s surprise he agreed to marry Katherine because his marriage “would please his father, rile the pope, make the angels laugh and the devils weep.” They wedded on June 13, 1524.  She was twenty-six; he was forty-two.

Though initially a marriage of convenience, they grew to love each other very deeply and affectionately.  Thirteen years after their marriage, Martin would say of Katherine, “If I should lose my Katie I would not take another wife though I were offered a queen.”

One of the things that appeals to me with Katie was her sense of humour.  On one occasion, Martin had been in a foul and grumpy mood.  Nothing seemed to be going right for him, so he would stomp around the house.  Katie did not say anything.  Instead, she dressed up in black like a grieving widow, put a veil over her head and just sat there.  He came through the door and asked, “What is wrong with you.  What are you doing, woman?”  She replied, “Oh, dear, it is just terrible.  The Lord in Heaven is dead.”  He asked what she was talking about that the Lord in Heaven was dead.  “God is not dead!”  Katie replied, “Oh really, well the way you have been acting I thought that is what had happened.”  She soon had Martin laughing.  She had a way of bringing him out of his moods.

The Black Cloister, where the Luther’s lived

On another occasion he was in one of these moods and locked himself in his office.  Guests were soon to arrive wanting to talk with him.  He couldn’t be doing that.  So, Katie hires a workman from the village to come and take the door off the hinges.  When the door comes off Martin is sitting there on one side and Katie and the kids on the other.  I found that brilliant – the kind of thing my wife would do!

Katie raised six of her own children.  She also cared for six other children who were orphans of Luther’s family – nieces and nephews and a great-nephew.  She worked hard in running the home, ministering to the guests, taking food to the homeless and you’ll love this one – she even brewed her own beer.  Every good German wife needs to know how to brew beer!  And people loved it.

Katherine often sat with Martin as he wrote his letters.  We know that because they include comments about what she was doing while he was writing.  I wonder what interaction and input she had in his writings – I expect her influence often came through.

There are lots of written records regarding the theological discussions Martin had with people (they were recorded and published as Luther’s “Table Talk”.  You can access them online here).  On many occasions, Katie would join in these discussions and also debate.  I can just imagine, knowing what I know about them both, the banter that passed back and forth between them.  It must have been quite entertaining for their guests.

Katie drove wagons, looked after their fields and gardens, raised cattle, rented horses, sold linen, helped edit his writings, and was often up by 4am and working to 9pm.  She worked so incredibly hard Martin had to frequently urge her to slow down and relax.  The longer they were married, the more tenderly her spoke to her.  “I am a happy husband,” he wrote “and may God continue to send me happiness, from that most gracious woman, my best of wives.”

If you read Luther’s earlier teaching on marriage he portrays it as a necessary evil to stave off sexual temptation.  But that greatly changed as the years went on and his love for Katie grew.  Later he said, “The greatest gift of grace a man can have is a pious, God-fearing, home-loving wife, whom he can trust with all his goods, body, and life itself, as well as having her as the mother of his children.”

I think that about says it all.

Katie now even has her own Facebook page.  You can find out all kinds of other things about here: https://www.facebook.com/KatieLutherProject/


You can also learn more interesting things about Martin and Katie in the age of the Reformation herehttp://www.corndancer.com/fritze/reformation2/refmaton2_home.html


Sola Gratia (our only method)

One of the crucial questions of the Middle Ages was how were the benefits of Christ’s death applied to the sinner who needed to be saved.  Over the course of a few centuries, the Catholic Church had appropriated that power to itself, through sacraments that the church administered to its members.  Those sacraments are: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.  The Catholic Church Catechism states that,

“The sacraments of the Catholic Church instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, are efficacious signs of grace perceptible to the senses. Through them divine life is bestowed upon us.”[1]

In other words, the Church becomes the custodian of grace and has the authority to mediate that grace to God’s people through the sacraments.  But even then, a person’s salvation is not secure.  There is additional work to be done.  This is where the real problem lay.

Pelagius, 5th Century AD

In the 5th century AD there was a teacher in Rome called Pelagius who taught that man has the ability to seek God and fulfil the commands of God apart from the grace of God.  In other words, a person is capable by his own free will to choose God or do good without the aid of divine intervention.  He could do that because his nature is basically good.

Well, the Roman Catholic theologians wouldn’t go that far.  They took on what is known as a semi-Pelagius view, saying that man’s will, though injured by the fall, is still free and cooperates with God’s grace in salvation.  It’s like a 50-50 deal.  We make the first move toward God and then He steps in and ‘helps us along.’  They even had a phrase – “God will not deny his grace to those who do their best” (the modern-day equivalent of “God helps those who help themselves”).

Against this the Reformers cried, “No, salvation is entirely by grace and grace alone.”  Luther was very strong on this.  In his book, The Bondage of the Will (which he claimed later in life to be his most important work), he argues that man’s will is bound in sin making him unable to respond to the gospel, and that it requires a special work of God’s grace to bring his salvation about.  This doesn’t mean that the will is inactive.  It means that wherever it is active in faith and obedience, God is the One who causes it to be so.  This is the essence of Sola Gratia – it is God’s grace working alone in our salvation.

This is no small issue here. For Luther, the issue of man’s bondage to sin was the root issue of the Reformation — and the lynchpin of Protestantism.  The Catholic Church agreed.  Irwin Lutzer says, “The Roman Catholic Church regarded he freedom of the will as the central issue in Luther’s split with the church.”

Perhaps you might grasp the difference between the two with this illustration.  Picture a man drowning in the water and God throws him a rope.  Whether he grabs the rope or not is his own choice.  Even after he grabs it, he must, by his own efforts hang on to it.  That’s Rome’s position on God’s grace (and, when it comes down to it, the position of many evangelical churches today).  Luther would say the man is not only drowning; he’s unconscious.  He cannot respond because he is unable to respond.  God must intervene and “awaken” his will so that he believes.

So what does Scripture teach?  That is what really matters.  In 2 Timothy 1 Paul reminds Timothy what the heart of the gospel is:

“He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began. This has now been made evident through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Timothy 1:9–10)

Now I want you to look at this closely with me.

  • Who, according to Paul is the one who does the saving in this passage? Do we save ourselves or does God save us?  God save us.
  • Was this based on anything we have done? No, it was based solely on God’s purpose and grace.
  • When was this saving grace given to us?  It was given before time began.
  • How was this grace given to us? Was it bestowed on us when we took sacraments or took steps to obey God?  No, it was given in and through the person of Christ.

Paul is teaching us in this passage that salvation, from start to finish, is all of grace.  It’s grace at the start, grace to the end, and grace in the middle.  The moment we add human works or human effort to the mix, it ceases to be grace.  As Paul puts it in the book of Romans,

“Now if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace.” (Romans 11:6)

You say, “Well then what do I bring to the table of my salvation?  I must bring something?”  Yes, you do – your sin.  We bring our sin and God brings his grace.  We say, “Lord, nothing in my hands I bring, only to the cross I cling.”  And God says, “That’s all that is required.  You are saved by my grace and my grace alone.”

Do you find that difficult?  I’m sure you do.  Because we don’t like hearing those kinds of things.  It goes against our nature.  We all like to think there is some good in us.  But face to face with God – alone, just you and him, are you not (truly) good.  In fact, according to the Bible there is not one iota of good in you.

“As it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become worthless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10–12)

This is God’s assessment of the entire human race.  And unless we truly grasp this, unless we understand our true spiritual condition prior to salvation, we will never understand what grace really is.  Luther said,

“Man must completely despair of himself in order to become fit for the grace of Christ. The proper preparation for the grace and goodness of Christ is the awareness that I need them.”

I think all this is summed up so well in the great hymn from Charles Wesley – “And Can it Be?”  Here are two stanzas I really love:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’ eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

For Wesley, the message of “Grace Alone” was a prison escape.  It’s a message of liberation, not captivity.  It causes people to flourish and thrive.  It’s a message about God reaching down to poor, helpless creatures who have no ability in of themselves to make themselves better – truly better, and saying “Let me work in you.  My grace can not only save you, it can utterly transform you.”  And he does.

God offers you that freedom in His Son.  All that is needed is to surrender yourself completely and utterly to him.  He will cleanse you.  He will renew you.  And he will create the will in you to do what you cannot do yourself.

His grace is sufficient.  His grace, alone.

[1] Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, p.224

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.

Getting your head around Luther’s insults

With all the attention lately on the 500 years celebrating the Reformation (see my earlier post on this here) I thought it might be good to uncover one of the more unusual (and indeed humourous) aspects of this great event.  If you are familiar with any of the history of the Reformation and in particular, the writings of Martin Luther, you would have at some time come across Luther’s insults.  It can’t be helped – they’re everywhere.  Here are a few samples:

“You are the worst rascal of all the rascals on earth!”
From Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil, pg. 341 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41

“Perhaps you like to hear yourself talk, as the stork its own chattering.”
Against the Heavenly Prophets from Vol. 40 of Luther’s Works.

“Take care, you evil and wrathful spirits. God may ordain that in swallowing you may choke to death.”
From Against the Heavenly Prophets, pg. 111 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 40

“All Christians should be on guard against your antichristian poison.”
Defense and Explanation of All the Articles from Vol. 32 of Luther’s Works

So what’s the deal?  Surely he didn’t say (as in write) these things publicly.  He would never get away with it.  Well actually he did, and so did many of his opponents.

In order to appreciate Luther’s insults (and yes, they can be appreciated) you need to understand the context and culture in which they were spoken.[1]  Luther was simply a product of his time.  INSULTING was a common rhetorical device used with polemical[2] literature in the 16th century.  Luther was defending pure doctrine against impure doctrine and trying to guide the church of his day back to the gospel and the  “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).  His insults however, went a little too far sometimes and bordered on the unseemly.  Fortunately his wife Katherine was more than capable of handling this.  When his language was too foul, she would say, “Oh come now, that’s too raw” (can’t you just picture it?).

Katie Luther

When asked to retract his works at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther spoke openly about what he had written and the people he spoke strongly against.  Concerning his insults, Luther said,

I have written a third sort of book against some private and (as they say) distinguished individuals – those, namely, who strive to preserve the Roman tyranny and to destroy the godliness taught by me.  Against these I confess I have been more violent than my religion or profession demands.  But then, I do not set myself up as a saint; neither am I disputing about my life, but about the teaching of Christ.  It is not proper for me to retract these works, because by this retraction it would again happen that tyranny and godlessness would, with my patronage, rule and rage among the people of God more violently than ever before.

It is clear from this explanation that Luther was using the common rhetorical device of insults (he terms them “violence”) to defend pure doctrine against tyranny and godlessness.  For all you pro-Reformation people out there, you might say “Go Luther!”  For those of you are who are not so “pro” (or perhaps, just neutral), relax and exhale.  Or better still – laugh along with us.

So what would this kind of “insulting” look like if it was in action today?  Well Adam4d.com (subtitled – “A curiously Christian webcomic) came up with a suggestion.  But before I elaborate further, if the above content bothered you then you probably better stop reading.

Posing as Luther, they (I assume there’s more than one culprit involved here) have created a fanciful twitter feed belonging to the infamous Joel Osteen (if you don’t know who he is you are most blessed).  Osteen preaches a man-centered prosperity gospel that tells people God wants them to be happy, healthy and wealthy.  His messages always have a positive, feel-good vibe that people just love and I can’t stand.  He’s rich and famous and also happens to be, in my lowly view, a heretic.

Here’s some samples from the supposed twitter feed:

Ouch!  Imagine seeing that come up on your twitter feed!  Or how about this one:

Synonyms for “fawner”: leech, parasite, groveller, greaser.  You get the point.

Yeah – sock it to him Luther.  Here’s another:

Say what???   Yep – I had the same reaction.  So I looked up pusillanimous and found this: “lacking courage or resolution; cowardly; faint-hearted; timid” (you can check out the pronunciation here.)  I’d love to know what it was in German, and why on earth the translators didn’t pick an easier word.  Here’s one more for the road:

If you’re keen for more, you can head to the real deal “Luther Insulter” webpage and get insulted yourself, as much as you want.  Simply click on the picture below.  Have fun!

[1] I give credit to Tyler Rasmussen’s explanation on his “Luther Insults Explained” (http://ergofabulous.org/luther/insults-explained.php)

[2] Polemic: a controversial argument, as one against some opinion, doctrine, etc.

The Reformation: why it still matters

I want to take you back in time.  The year is 1517.  The place is Wittenberg, a small, sleepy town in East Germany.  A young Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther makes his from his monastery and walks across town to the Castle Church.  Under his arm is a wad of papers.  He walks up to the front of the church, takes out a hammer and nails his papers to the door.

Luther’s intention was not to start a Reformation.  He had no intention of breaking with the Catholic Church.  His thesis was simply an invitation to a public debate.  It was a 16th century version of a blog post inviting online discussion.  However, before the Bishops had time to respond Luther’s students swiped it and had it printed on the newly invented Gutenberg printing press.  It soon made its way through Germany and the rest of Europe.  What began as a small protest erupted into a firestorm that swept the world.

So what was it exactly that got Luther so worked up?   Luther was frustrated.  He had tolerated a number of things up to this point.  He had tolerated the religious hierarchy in the church – a system of Popes and Bishops and Priests that ruled over the people with an iron fist.  He had tolerated the services and the sacraments which every good Catholic was obliged to participate in.  But what he could not tolerate was the actions of a certain Dominican Friar by the name of John Tetzel a few days beforehand.  That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Tetzel was going from town to town selling indulgences.  An indulgence was a payment one could make to the Catholic Church that purchased an exemption from punishment (penance) for certain sins.  People feared that if one of their sins went unnoticed or unconfessed, they would spend extra time in purgatory before reaching heaven.  Or worse, they wind up in hell for failing to repent.  The purchase of an indulgence would fix that.   Well Pope Leo saw this as a great way of making revenue so he opened it up for those who were living and dead.  Now you could buy an indulgence for Uncle Semas who hadn’t been a very good Catholic and you could get him out of purgatory.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse – it did.  The Pope wanted to finish building St. Peter’s cathedral.  To do this, he authorized a special indulgence that would provide forgiveness for all sin.  This could be bought for your dead relatives in purgatory.  This was what Tetzel was selling.

Tetzel would come rolling into town in a grand wagon.  Trumpets would blow and banners would unfurl.  A table would be set up in the town square.  On one side there was a pile of parchments and on the other a large chest.  Then Tetzel would cry out:

Johann Tetzel selling indulgences

Listen now, God and Peter call you. Consider the salvation of your souls and your departed loved ones departed… Visit the most holy cross erected before you and ever imploring you… Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends beseeching you and saying, “Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.” Do you not wish to? Open your ears. Hear the father saying to his son, the mother to her daughter, “We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel and hard that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in the flames? Will you delay the promised glory? [1]

Then he added with a rhythm in his voice,

“Every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs”

This was religious exploitation to the extreme.  But the people didn’t know any better.  They were completely in the dark.  They had no bibles, no theological instruction, nor did they have theological books.  They were utterly dependent on the priests.  But the priests were just as ignorant.  When John Hooper was first appointed bishop of Gloucester in England in 1551, he reported out of 311 of the clergy, 168 were unable to repeat the 10 commandments, 31 couldn’t even state in what part of Scripture they came from, 40 could not tell where the Lord’s Prayer was written and 40 couldn’t even say who authored it!

This was the state of things prior to the Reformation.  J.C. Ryle gives an avid description of the time.  He says the Roman Catholic Church was…

“an organized system of Virgin Mary worship, pilgrimages, almsgiving, formalism, ceremonialism, processions, prostrations, bowings, crossings, fastings, confessions, absolutions, Masses, penances, and blind obedience to the priests.  It was a grand higgledy-piggledy of ignorance and idolatry, and service done to an unknown God by deputy.  The only practical result was that the priests took the people’s money and undertook to unsure their salvation, and the people flattered themselves that the more they gave to the priests, the more sure they were going to heaven.”

When Luther nailed his 95 Thesis on the Wittenberg door, he was challenging the power base of a very powerful religious system.  And they did not like it.  Luther was quickly denounced as a man preaching “dangerous doctrines.”  In the year 1521 he was called to the Diet (or assembly) of Worms (pronounced Verms) – a small town on the Rhine river in Germany, where he was called upon to recant his heresies.  Luther responded with this, now famous declaration:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen. Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Luther at the Diet of Worms 1521

With those words, Luther set his course.  What followed is what we know as the Great Reformation.  A number of strong and very courageous men followed Luther – William Tyndale in England, Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, John Calvin in France, and John Knox in Scotland.  They were not perfect men by any stretch of the imagination.  They made their mistakes.  But they were God’s men for the day, to lead the church back to the simplicity and purity of the gospel.

But does it really matter today?

There are some who say the Reformation has been and gone – it doesn’t matter anymore.  It’s something that happened in the past so let’s leave it in the past.  Well, this part of the past matters.  Here’s three reasons why:

1. The Reformation matters because it had world-changing effects
The Reformation gave us the Bible – now freely available in our own language.  The reformation also gave us religious freedom, liberty of conscience, and separation of church and state.  As a result of the Reformation Christians have made more positive changes on earth than any other force or movement in history.  More schools and universities have been started by Christians than any other religion, nation or group.  It was Christian Reformers that succeeded in bringing about the abolition of slavery, cannibalism, child sacrifice, as well as the degrading treatment of women.  None of these things would have occurred, if it were not for the Reformation.

 2. The Reformation matters because it brought about the recovery of the gospel
The glorious gospel, which teaches that sinners can be made righteous – not by works but by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone was rediscovered.  And the result was new life.  The result was true regeneration of men and women, who were brought from darkness to light, from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.

3. The Reformation matters because it serves as a warning to the church today
It serves as a warning of what can happen when authority is abused and truth is ignored.  It serves as a warning of when God’s grace is peddled for profit, power and personal gain.  And it serves as a warning when the gospel becomes eclipsed and overshadowed by the methods, programs, and teachings of men.

If the gospel matters to you, if the glory of God and purity of the church matters to you, if religious freedom and liberty of conscience matters to you, if women’s rights and the abolition of slavery and education for all people – regardless of age or gender or race matters to you, then you cannot and should not remain ignorant of the Reformation.

Because these are the very things that the Reformers fought and in some cases, died for.

Addendum: just for the sheer pleasure of it, check out this video (a trailer for Ligonier Ministries 2017 National Conference).  It’s a powerful visual of the world-changing impact of Luther’s actions that day October 31, 1517.

[1] Roland Bainton, Here I stand, p.59

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