Doctrine

God Wants to Be Known: General Revelation (HC:LD8c)

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Imagine for a moment that you are sitting at home one night when you hear a weird noise outside your door, see a bunch of flickering lights, and then moments later hear a knock on your door.

You answer it and there stands an alien family from outer space – there’s an alien mom, alien dad, and a couple of alien kids. You look at them for a moment, not being sure how to react, when one of them says, “Hi! We’re on vacation and got a little lost. We were on our way to our favourite spot but got turned around. Then we noticed your planet had its lights on so we decided to stop by. We’ve got a few days left in our vacation and think it would be great for the kids to see a planet like this. But before we head off, we have a question for you: What’s this planet like?”

How do you answer that? That’s a huge question, with a thousand answers. Do you talk about how we do food and water? How we communicate? Do you start with the national and political and religious situations they should consider? Do you start describing mountains and valleys and sunsets, or do you start with the Seven Wonders of the World? Maybe you should start with the history of the planet, it’s location in the solar system, how life came to be, and why it looks the way it does? But where should they go first? What must they definitely see on earth before they leave? What should they definitely avoid? What warning signs should they look out for and what is the best place to go to understand our global culture? If you’re a farmer you’ll probably have one answer, if you’re a geologist another. If you are a politician you’ll prioritize some things, if you’re an artist you’ll mention something completely different.

But the earth is finite, right? Technically, eventually, you could summarize and describe everything they would need to know so they had a basic understanding of planet earth and could set out on their way – but what if they asked you to describe our solar system, or our galaxy – from the atomic level all the way up to the largest formations of stars and everything in between. That would be hard, right?

But again, those things are tangible, physical, measurable. With a good enough microscope and telescope, you could theoretically take a good crack at it and eventually come up with a description of everything in the known universe.

But what about God? He is infinitely more difficult to describe? Why? Because He’s not finite, He’s infinite. He’s not bound by time, He’s eternal. He doesn’t have limits and boundaries that we can mark off because He is all-powerful, ever-present, and all-knowing. He is literally unfathomable. And yet, it is our task as believers is to try to get to know Him. As I said before, from Christ’s words in John 17:3,

“…this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Theology

Theology is the science of studying God. RC Sproul, in his book Everyone is a Theologian says this:

“Theology is inescapable. Not everybody is a professional Theologians with a capital-T, but we are all theologians with a lower-case-t because we all have some view of who God is. And so, fundamental to living and walking as a Christian is clear understanding of the truth of God.”

Regardless of what else we do in this world, our jobs, our family, our struggles and victories, it all revolves around the greatest mission in life: to know God and to know Jesus. All those things – our studies, our work, our relationships – not only teach us about ourselves and this world, but they all come back to teach us about the One who created it and for whom it was created (Col 1:15-17).

That’s what we’ve been getting at for the past couple weeks. In the catechism we are studying, we are trying to get a “clear understanding of the truth of God” so that we can wrap our minds around who He is, what He’s like, and what that means for us.

In truth, the last couple sermons and this one are the same – just broken up over the weeks. It would have been overwhelming to try to answer everything that Day 8 wants me to cover. In Day 8, which covers questions 24 and 25 of the catechism, it is traditional to explain not only the answers to the questions but to give an outline of how we know there is a God in the first place and then spend time describing His most obvious attributes.

Over the past couple weeks I gave a quick review, discussed the first attribute of God found in the doctrine of the Trinity, and then I told you that we would move into talking about more of those attributes. So that’s what I want to do today. As I said about trying to describe earth to those alien vacationers, it’s an impossible task to complete, but there are many things that we can do to get a good start.

God Wants to Be Known

And a good place to start is that God is a person who wants to be known.

Sometimes people say that God is unknowable, too mysterious, too impossible to understand, and therefore they either give up trying or construct a version of Him that is easier for them to comprehend. In fact, I just used the word “unfathomable” to describe Him. But to be “unfathomable” doesn’t mean that we can know nothing about Him, it means we cannot know everything about Him. And, in fact, because of the limited capacity of our language, even the words we use to describe Him will fall short, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. Yes, God is invisible and infinitely complicated, but on the other hand, God is a clearly a person who wants to be known, who has chosen to reveal Himself and has demonstrated a desire to be known in a lot of different ways. Today we’re going to talk about the most general ways.

General Revelation: Creation

First, He makes Himself known in Creation. Romans 1:19–20 when speaking of those who refuse to believe in God it says,

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

Psalm 19:1–2 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”

Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”

The point here is that creation itself declares that there is a God. Theologians call this “General Revelation” as opposed to “Special Revelation” because it’s not specific. Examples of special revelation are things like the Bible, prophecies, miracles, the person of Jesus – but the world around us, the wonders and power of creation, is an example of “General Revelation”. No one can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through “General Revelation”, but through it, they can understand some of the big concepts like God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature”. Meaning that everyone on earth, at some point in their life, looks at the world around them, the beauty, complexity, design, and usefulness[1] and thinks, “Wow, there is something beyond me. Something self-existent that was before me, before everything, something beyond me that has the wisdom and power to create all of this.”

General Revelation: Conscience

But that isn’t the only source of General revelation. Coupled with the revelation of God in Creation is Him revealing Himself in our Conscience.

Let me read Romans 2:12-16 which speaks of how all mankind, not only those who have read the Bible, have fallen under the judgment of God. It says,

“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

The second General Revelation of the existence of God is that everyone on earth has a human conscience. Yes, this conscience is flawed and imperfect, but it is also universal. Thomas Aquinas called this the Natural Law. What it is is an argument that if there is a universal, objective, moral law to which all humanity agrees, then there must be a Universal Law Giver. There can only be an up and a down, a right and a wrong, if there is some sort of reference point. And that reference point cannot be something we all coincidentally just came up with. We cannot have the belief that this world is all about the “survival of the fittest” alongside the internal, universal moral imperative not to murder. Yet everywhere, regardless of religion, history, or culture agrees that murder is wrong.

I heard a quote this week that said:

“For the atheist, humans are just accidents of nature; highly evolved animals. But animals have no moral obligations to one another. When a cat kills a mouse it hasn’t done anything morally wrong. The cat is just being a cat. If God doesn’t exist, we should view human behaviour in the same way. No action should be considered morally right or wrong. But the problem is that good and bad, right and wrong, do exist. Just as our sense experience convinces us that the physical world is objectively real, our moral experience convinces us that moral values are objectively real. Every time you say, ‘That’s not fair. That’s wrong. That’s an injustice.’ You affirm your belief in the existence of objective morals.” In other words, the person who says that murder, terrorism, and child abuse is morally right is just as mistaken as the person who says that 2+2=5. (The Theology Forum)

Everyone that has ever existed, if they have the capacity for self-examination and self-awareness, has a moment when they see a glimpse of God’s divinity in Creation. It’s universal. Also, every human being has a moment when they realize that their thoughts, actions, and motives are somehow conflicting with what they know is right. Their moral behaviour doesn’t line up with their moral understanding. They inherently know something is right or wrong, not because that thought was written in some book or because their parents said so, but because something greater, something within them has said it was right or wrong. Then they do the opposite, breaking their conscience, creating within themselves guilt and shame.

Every human being has to deal with those two general revelations – and then they must do something about it. They see the vastness of space, the beauty of a sunset, the power of a storm, the birth of a baby and it triggers something primal in their soul. At the same time, they realize that there is something in them that compels them and everyone else, every society on earth, towards and away from certain behaviours. Somehow, even in secret where no one can see them, in their heart of hearts, they feel pride when they do good and guilt when they do wrong.

At that moment they are faced with a choice to either explore those feelings, those revelations, those divine moments. They are given the invitation to seek after that power, try to discover more about it, to find that moral lawgiver – or repress that thought, ignore it ever happened, deny that guilty feeling and repress it until it goes away, to refuse to believe that there is any being above themselves or any morality that should stop them from achieving their own desires.

That is a universal, human experience, and it is what Romans 1 and 2 are all about. In the words of one commentary I have, it says,

“From creation we can learn in general, that there is a God, and that He is omnipotent and all-wise; from conscience, that there is a holy and just God, who hates and punishes evil.” (Thelemann, O. An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. p. 86)

We just went through an election in Carleton Place and we were inundated with road signs with candidates’ names on them and pamphlets in the mail with pictures and slogans. Creation and Conscience are sort of like God’s signs, God’s calling cards, His invitations to know Him more. But what we cannot do is deny we have seen the invitation.

No human being will stand before God and say, “I never knew there was a being above me. I never knew the difference between right and wrong. I never felt that there was power or wisdom beyond myself.” Everyone will stand before God and say, “Yes, I knew in my heart that there was some kind of eternal power and divine nature beyond myself. I perceived it in creation. And I knew that throughout my life I was given the choice between right and wrong and I chose wrong time and again. I stand self-condemned. I chose to deny you, chose not to seek you, and chose to darken my heart so I could choose wrong, against my conscience, so I could have material things. I exchanged the pursuit of God for a lie of my own preference.”

Conclusion: The Virtuous Pagan

The bad news about General Revelation is that it only has the power to condemn humanity. Turn with me to Romans 1:18–25 and let’s read the expanded section of what we’ve been studying. It says,

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”

The question often comes to Christians: What about the person who has never heard Gospel, never read the Bible, never heard about Jesus? What about the innocent person who grew up in a far-flung country that has never been visited by missionaries or whose tribe wouldn’t let them in? Surely God wouldn’t hold that against them? How could a good and loving God condemn someone to Hell just because they’ve never heard of Him? That’s unfair! This is often called the problem of the “Virtuous Pagan”.

This argument has even been used to say that it is actually cruel of Christians to send missionaries because perhaps God would have saved that person if they had never heard of Jesus. What if the missionary bungled the presentation or the person couldn’t understand the story. We should just leave them alone so that they can find God their way, shouldn’t we?

The Doctrine of General Revelation, as presented in the Bible disagrees. First, God has not promised salvation to everyone and has no obligation to save everyone. The fact that He chooses to save anyone is because of His grace, not because He has to. The Bible doesn’t present humanity as good, moral, wonderful little creatures that God sends to Hell for no reason. Instead, the Bible presents humanity as fallen, sinful, evil beings that have rejected God, rejected objective morality, and have chosen sin instead, making themselves an enemy of God.

Everyone in that has ever existed, in every country, language, and nation, will stand before God and be self-condemned (they will admit their guilt before God) for what they have known through General Revelation. No one will be able to argue that they deserve Heaven because of their own merit or because of their ignorance. Some will be even more condemned because they not only rejected God’s General Revelation through Creation and Conscience, but have actually read the Word of God, seen the Law of God, heard about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and rejected it too.

But the good news is that God has not left everyone condemned. He could have. But instead, God has revealed Himself and His plan of salvation to us and has invited us to be a part of spreading that message to others.

Next week we are going to move from talking about the General Revelations of God to the Special Revelations, and how we can know God better through them.

[1] Taken from ESV Study Bible note on Rom 1:19-20

[3] Thelemann, O. (1896). An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. (M. Peters, Trans.) (p. 86). Reading, PA: James I. Good, D. D, Publisher.

Watch Your Life and Doctrine Closely (HC: Intro)

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Introduction - Watch Your Life and Doctrine Closely

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Please open up with me to 1 Timothy 4:6-16 and let’s read it together.

What we are about to read are the words of the Apostle Paul written either from prison, or right after he had been released from prison, and was writing in order to counsel his young co-worker Timothy about some of the issues that were arising in the church in Ephesus and how to deal with them – especially the false teachers. Paul tells Timothy that true Christianity is evidenced by a lifestyle that is shaped by the gospel – and that corrupt doctrine is corrupted Christianity and will be evidenced by a corrupt life.[1]

The letter up until this point has been covering a bunch of theological and practical issues in the church, has addressed some of the lies that the false teachers have been spreading, and now, we read these words. Let’s read it together:

“If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

If you recall a couple of weeks ago I talked about Timid Timothy, Paul’s co-worker and God’s obedient, but pretty roughed up soldier, sent into the toughest areas to help the church. Paul would plant a church and then move on, the church would end up in some kind of trouble, and then Paul would send Timothy to help them get things straight. Even though Timothy was young, timid, and stressed out, he was also obedient and godly. He when where God wanted him and preached what God wanted him to say.

How though? How did Timid Timothy stay strong in the face of false teachers, church factions, violent mobs, and utter confusion? How did he stay uncorrupted when faced with so many lies, rumours, divisions, hurt and anger? We see how in this passage. He stood firm on the gospel. Paul’s command here to Timothy, which is also God’s command to all churches, is to keep it simple and stand on the foundation of biblical truth. Timid Timothy held tight to his doctrine and it was his strength. His opponents weren’t fighting him, they were fighting God.

The word doctrine is all over the section we just read, though it’s translated “teaching” sometimes. Paul says in verse 6 that Timothy was trained in “good doctrine” and then in verse 11 tells him to “command and teach” that doctrine to others. Verse 13 says to keep reading the scripture in public and to keep teaching its doctrines. And then, in verse 16 he says, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching [that word means “the doctrines”]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

How could young Timothy help to save these hurting, messed up, false teacher infected churches? By keeping a very close watch on his personal behaviour (so he didn’t disqualify himself) and his doctrines.

Doctrine

The word “doctrine” itself simply means, “authoritative teaching”, and in the New Testament it’s used to describe the standard, orthodox teachings given in the Old Testament, by Jesus, and through His apostles. It’s shorthand for “The right teaching of God’s Word.”

In Mark 7:6-8 Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

In Romans, a book full of theological teaching, Paul says in his final greetings 16:17, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.”

In the qualifications of the elders given to another co-worker of Paul’s, a young man named Titus, it says that an elder in the church must “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9).

Why? Because it is by the persisting in good doctrine, right teaching, right theology, right understanding of the Word of God that both themselves and their hearers would be saved.

Necessary Controversy in the Church

“But!”, I hear some people saying, “People aren’t saved by doctrine! They are saved by Jesus! We don’t need a bunch of doctrinal statements, theological arguments, and catechetical documents – we just need Jesus! Doctrine is for those hyper Calvinist and fundamentalist guys who hate and judge everything and everyone. Loving people don’t argue about doctrine.”

A lot of people hate the very idea of studying theology and doctrine because all they see are a bunch of excuses to nit-pick and argue. “The gospel is simple”, they say, “just believe in Jesus and you’ll be saved! Why complicate it with a bunch of other boring and hurtful stuff that just causes church splits and arguments?”

In a sense, I can see their point. I’ve studied a bit of church history and I’ve been part of a few churches in my time, which means I’ve seen a lot of really bad stuff come from fights about theology. And for sure, it’s terrible when Christians fight. It not only makes us look bad, but it doesn’t bring glory to God. We read Acts 2 and Acts 4 and wonder why we can’t be more like that. United under God, fellowshipping in each other’s homes, “of one heart and soul”. And I wish that were true, but the history of the church, even in the New Testament isn’t one of continuous, blissful, uninterrupted unity – it’s a continuous battle against division.

Just consider the letter to 1 Corinthians we just studied. They were split over everything! Which apostle was better, sexual morality, what to eat, what to wear…[2] everything. Every letter sent to the churches in the New Testament deals with a problem where Christians were dividing over some issue or another.

But here’s the thing. Even though Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:10, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” he says later in chapter 11:19, “for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”

In other words, in God’s divine direction for the church, He has allowed and even ordained that there be controversies and arguments in order that the quality of each person’s spiritual life. Controversies, times where there are differences of opinion and disunity in direction, are a way for God to “test and approve” his church. It sounds weird, but controversy is actually necessary for a healthy church. You can know the quality of a person’s faith better, and your own, by how we face controversy. You can tell who is pursuing right theology and good doctrine by being forced to clarify it and argue for it. You can tell who is cut out for leadership, and who is just a poser, by seeing how they face controversy. You can see which people are genuinely in love with God and His church, and which are just along for the ride, by seeing what happens when controversy arises. And often in the church, those controversies are doctrinal.

That’s why the scripture commands us to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the [doctrines]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Right doctrine is the difference between worshipping the right God and the wrong one, trusting the right Jesus or the wrong one, having confidence in your salvation or not. Right doctrine, a right understanding of God, is the difference between being able to passionately worship the one, true, God for all He is and what He’s done or just going through a bunch of religious motions because it makes you happy or you think you’re supposed to. It’s the difference between having a church that honours and preaches God’s wisdom that saves and inspires or honours and preaches man’s wisdom that condemns and ensnares. Right doctrine is the difference between raising up children that are actually Christian, actually faithful, actually able to know what they believe and why, or are just a bunch of good, religious hypocrites who have no true foundation and will fall away when left to themselves. Seeing God rightly helps us fear God, pursue righteousness, mortify sin, and do what we can to be in right relationship with Him and others. Right doctrine is the strength of the Christian church, of the Christian family, of the individual believer. Without good doctrine, we lose our way.

As Bad as it Gets

There was likely never a time when the church had lost their way worse than right before the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The church and almost all of Christendom was an absolute mess because so much false teaching and bad doctrine had taken over the church.

I won’t get into all the ways the Roman Catholic Church had corrupted the gospel, but the worse way was perhaps something called “indulgences”. It was, in short, a way for the church to sell people forgiveness. The pope was spending money faster than it could come in and needed to make lots of money fast, and came up with the idea that the church could grant people forgiveness for certain sins, even in advance, even for people who were dead, if they would give the church some money.

Church representatives would go from town to town selling indulgences to poor people, telling them that if they contributed to the church that their dead parent could get out of purgatory, and that it was their fault if they let their family member suffer. They would go to rich people and say, if you want to sin, just give us some money and we’ll make sure it’s ok with God. It was an absolute corruption.

My favourite story of this was when one of the most famous indulgence sellers, a man named Tetzel, was found by a nobleman named Hans von Hake who asked if he could buy an indulgence for a big sin he would be committing in the future. Tetzel asked for a bunch of money and then gave him the receipt which said that the church would forgive him for whatever he did.

Hans then waited until Tetzel was headed out of town, attacked him, and stole all of the money Tetzel had collected. When Tetzel became angry and started to threaten him with the torment of purgatory if he didn’t give the money back, Hans just waved his receipt in his face and said that this was the big sin he was planning to commit, so it was already forgiven![3]

That’s how big of a mess the church was in. That’s what the church was teaching and no one knew any better because almost no one had access to the Bible – and those given the task of preaching and teaching it, even in the seminaries and universities, didn’t bother to read it either. All that mattered was what the pope had said was true. But for a few exceptions, the Bible was all-but forgotten in the Christian church. In other words, (and though this is an oversimplification) no one was watching the faith and the doctrines closely – and it had led to moral chaos.

Most of you know what happens next because we just celebrated it last October. A bright, young monk named Martin Luther comes on the scene, starts to study the Bible, posts 95 problems he has with the church that he’d like to discuss – especially indulgences –that document is printed on the fairly new Gutenberg press and it’s sent all over the place, and it sparks the Protestant Reformation.

Zacharias Bär  (Ursinus)

We know lots about Luther and Calvin and Wycliffe and the other fathers of the Reformation, but someone else that was incredibly influential during that time period, that a lot of people don’t know about, was a man named Zacharias Bär, later known as Ursinus. [Telling Ursinus’ story, for me, is extraordinarily complicated because God was doing so very much during that time, in so many places, but I’ll do my best.]

Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation by nailing the 95 Thesis to the Wittenberg Castle Door in Germany in 1517. He worked for 30 years, writing, defending, travelling, pastoring, and teaching the Bible all over Germany, sending his writings all over the world, dying in 1546. John Calvin, another giant of the Reformation was born in France 1509, became a Protestant in 1533, partly due to Luther’s influence, and published the first edition of his masterwork, the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1538, something he would work on all his life until he died in 1564. [There were so many other important figures at this time, but let me stick to just those two giants.]

There are two main periods at the beginning of the Reformation: this first generation of Luther and Calvin where they plowed the dry, stony ground the church had become, tilled up the land so God’s healing rain could be accepted and make the land fertile again. It was these men that scattered the seeds of gospel truth onto this newly productive land, sprouting churches and new hope in Jesus all over the place.

When they died, a second generation took up the work of the first, but their task wasn’t to plant the seed, but to guard the ripening harvest and plucking out all the weeds that were growing that wanted to choke out the new growth. It is to the second period that Ursinus belongs.

Zacharias Ursinus was born Zacharias Bär in Breslau, Germany in 1534. He grew up poor, but showed an amazing aptitude for learning and was sponsored by a rich doctor to go to university in Wittenberg in 1550, when he was barely 16 years old. That was just 4 years after Luther died.

After reading about him for a while, I think I can safely say he was a lot like Timothy. Both were very young and timid, but bright and faithful. Both were chosen by an older, greater man, and thrust into the world to do great things. Both served memorably and courageously, even despite their natural predilection towards meekness. He studied under a man named Philip Melanchthon, a famous friend of Luther’s and staunch defender of the Reformation. Melanchthon became like a father to young Ursinus and brought him all over the Reformed world. At age 21 he went to a church conference in the city of Worms, one of the most famous places in Luther’s career, and was sent off from there with a glowing letter of recommendation to study under the greatest teachers in Germany, Switzerland, and France for a few years.

He met the biggest names in the Reformed world, even John Calvin himself, receiving a free gift of the copy of all his works, including the newly completed Institutes that Calvin had been working on for 23 years!

While Ursinus was traveling and learning, some difficult things were happening back in Germany. A man named Otto Henry, an Elector Palatine, a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire in one of the most important, most influential positions in the world, died in 1559, after only 3 years. Otto had been one of the key figures that had moved away from the Roman Catholic church and allowed Reformed thinkers and Protestant parties to hold some seats of power and influence in politics and the universities. But though he was a follower of Luther, and even had Melanchthon as an advisor, he was also a fence sitter who didn’t want to get into theological arguments, even trying to keep contacts with Catholicism to avoid conflict.

When Otto Henry died, Frederick III came into power. Frederick was no fence sitter. Even though he was born Catholic, he married a Lutheran woman who converted him to Christianity. As he studied, he became more and more reformed minded and eventually became convinced of the teachings of Calvin.

As he took up Otto’s important position, he took it as his main task to unite the varied protestant groups and sects that were under his rule. He wanted his people united, the church united, the theology and doctrines gone through, and everyone to be on the same theological page. And so he turned to the faculty of the University of Heidelberg to help him out.

He wanted some big names. Otto had asked Melanchthon to lead the University of Heidelberg, but he said no. Now Frederick wanted another big name, the renowned Peter Martyr Vermigli, who taught at the University of Zurich. Vermigli said he was too old and would, in fact, die only a couple years later. But he had an idea. He had recently met a young man, only 26 years old, that loved God, knew God’s Word and Reformed theology in and out, and was eager to learn and serve the church in whatever way he could. His name was Zacharias Ursinus.

And so, in 1561, at age 27, Ursinus moved to Heidelberg to work as the superintendent of a preacher’s seminary inside the University. He was to become one of the pillars of the Reformation. It is not an understatement to say that Ursinus was being asked to become the John Calvin of Heidelberg – an incredibly daunting and dangerous task.

But how would Frederick and Ursinus unite such a divided group of believers? The Protestant Reformation was still new. Luther had only been dead for 14 years. The ink was still wet on Calvin’s Institutes. Most people had only had the Bible in their own language for less than 30 years, and there were a LOT of ideas coming from all directions.

The more they studied, the more they realized was wrong with the Catholic Church, even the most basic parts like the Lord’s Supper. What even was it? Did it magically turn into Jesus’ actual body and actual blood when the priest blessed it? Or was it just a symbol? If you missed taking it could you be forgiven? Who could take it? How often? In some Catholic churches, the bread and wine were considered so holy that common people weren’t even allowed to touch it – they could only look at it on the way by and then the priest would eat it. And in some cities, when the Protestants invited people for the Lord’s Supper, people fainted when they touched the bread, riots broke out, churches and priests were hunted down and killed.

How would Frederick and young Ursinus bring all this together? The answer came from the scriptures and from Luther. They would hold onto the doctrines, they would command and teach the doctrines, and they would watch their lives and their doctrines closely. They would persist in it, for by doing so they would save both themselves and their hearers.

Luther said it this way when speaking about the use of force to try to make people convert to Christianity or change their theology: “In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no one by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take me as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise, I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”[4]

The Heidelberg Catechism

And so, they would teach the word to people, especially the youth. Before Frederick came to power the young people were either neglected or were being miss-taught by individual pastors who were just making things up as best they could. What they needed was a catechism, a positive and uniform training in the Christian faith that would state the doctrines clearly and comprehensively.

It wouldn’t be a document for dusty theologians and arguing university professors, it would be one that the young, the novice, the unlearned, the preacher and the schoolmasters could read, understand, and use as a rule to go by in their private learning, schooling, and church instructions.[5] It wouldn’t be something brand new but would use the best of the existing catechisms and teachings of the church, from the Apostles Creed written in 390 AD to what John Calvin had written only a few years before. It would be divided up into three simple, logical sections: The problem of sin, the way man is saved, and how we should thank God for that salvation. And though it would have 129 questions and answers, it would be broken down into 52 sections so pastors and teachers could complete it in just one year. And in those divisions, it would use the words of the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s prayer. There would be a shorter one for easy study and a longer one with hundreds of notes and commentary – and then years later an even longer version with even more notes and commentary.

It wouldn’t just be a textbook but would be a beautifully stated theology, a personal confession of faith. It would be personal because unlike many other catechisms that came before and would come after, Ursinus’ Heidelberg Catechism would be written in the first person.

Let me read you the first question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” And the answer: “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

Conclusion

There is a beauty there, and power. We’re going to talk about that question this week, but what I really want you to walk away with this morning is the vitality and necessity of good doctrine, right theology, teaching and being trained in the Word of God, and what a gift it is to live in an age where we are overwhelmingly blessed with resources and good teaching.

And I want you to commit yourself to doing what 1 Timothy 4:16 says, to “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the doctrines.” as we study it together.

 

[1] Introduction to 1st Timothy: ESV Study Bible

[2] https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/there-must-be-factions

[3] https://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/60328/was-tetzel-robbed-by-a-man-who-had-preemptively-bought-an-indulgence

[4] Luther, M., 2012. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Third Ed. Eds. T.F. Lull and W.R. Russell, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pp.293-294.

[5] A lot of this is from Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, translated by Re. G.W. Williard, 2004, intro “Zacharias Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism

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Racism Prejudice and the Gospel.JPG

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Closedminded Prejudice

It’s been a troubling week again this week as we read about the race riots and murder in Charlottesville, Virginia and the 17 people killed in Barcelona, Spain just this week. It is strange how these things come in waves. Before now I hadn’t really considered how vehicles could be used in a terrorist attack, but now it doesn’t even come as a surprise to hear that someone has rammed people a crowd with a car and killed people. It turns out that suicide bombings are hard to do and more preventable than a vehicle attack, and so we are going to read about this more and more.

What do we do with all this? For a while, up here in our small town in Canada, it was easy to start to think that we were over all this hatred, but in a very short time we witness hatred off all kinds – nationalism, racism, religious – leading to violent outbreaks all over the world – even in our own back yard. Type in “Canada” and “Racism” into Google News and there’s plenty to read.

Fear and prejudice are dividing people more every day. Facebook, YouTube, and our favourite news channels don’t simply tell us what is happening, but turn into echo chambers of what we want to hear so that we’ll keep clicking and watching – which fuels tribalism and separation as we hear less and less diversity of opinion and more and more of ourselves reflected back at us. It’s easy to slip into an “us and them” mentality where I and the people like me are the good guys and everyone else is stupid, evil, and unworthy of our attention or love. And I know for a fact that we are not immune to this here because I’ve heard it and seen this type of thinking from my own friends and fellow believers as they publically denounce other nations, people groups, celebrities, news organizations, movements, religions – even other believers, churches, and pastors. We become more known for what we are against than for what we are about, which not only fuels separation and tribalism, but a prideful, elitist mentality that makes us think that we are better, smarter, and holier than everyone else.

Think about it for a moment. If I asked you to list all the groups you are against, it would be much easier than to list the ones that you identify with and have compassion for, right? I’m not going to list them here because it’s the only thing you would hear and remember from this sermon, but consider for a moment the groups and people you have seen, or have personally vilified over the past weeks, months and years. The people you believe you are better than, smarter than, holier than– and who should just shut up or go away. That’s not love, that pride. That’s not humility, that’s fear. That’s not a Christlike heart, that’s closed-minded prejudice.

Our Role in Salvation

We talked about this over the last few weeks, and even over the past months in our study of 1 Corinthians: Christians are not better than others. We are simply a group of those God has chosen to show the truth to. Yes, that is a bold claim these days – the claim to an exclusive truth – but that’s what we have. We believe that the claims of Jesus Christ being the way, truth and the life, and that no one can come to God except through Him are true – and that every other way is false.

But that shouldn’t lead us to pride, but humility! Remember the verse from Ephesians 2:8-9 last week? We emphasized how much our salvation is not our doing! “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

What do Christians believe about our role in salvation? That we are saved “by grace”, “not our own doing”, “not a result of [our] works” meaning that what Jesus did for us on the cross by taking our sins upon Himself and dying in our places is completely undeserved. It was an act of grace. This is the most distinctive feature, the most special thing, about Christianity, which comes right out of the Bible. There is no other system of thought, no other religion, either past or present that teaches that the path to life, peace, heaven, and God, is an act of divine, completely undeserved favour.[1]

Most other religions (like Bahai, Buddhism, Hinduism) believe that hard work and good deeds will lead to their life’s fulfilment and is their path to God, or freedom, or becoming a god, or whatever their version of heaven is – and that if you don’t do enough you get punished in some way. Islam believes that when you die your deeds will be weighed by Allah and if the good deeds (like prayer, pilgrimages, and generosity) outweigh the bad then you can get into heaven. The only way to really guarantee that you will go to heaven is to be martyred, or die in service to Allah, which really tips the scales. Other religions like Jehovah Witnesses or Mormonism have used some Christian language to give their religion credence, but rewrite or add to the Bible to include a whole bunch of extra works and financial giving that needs to be done or you will be rejected by God. Some who call themselves Christians, like Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have drifted from the doctrines of grace and teach that not only do you need to believe in Jesus, but you need to check off a series of good-deed and religion boxes or you can’t get into heaven. They also teach that even if you believe in Jesus you can lose your salvation by doing bad things – and have a list of ones that are so bad that you can never be forgiven for them. That’s not what the Bible says either.[2]

Last week we talked about the Doctrine of Total Depravity, the belief that everyone, by their very sinful nature, is bent away from God and would never choose to obey Him – and that even our supposed good deeds are still unacceptable to God because they are still tainted with our own selfishness, greed, false motives, and lack of insight.

In this world, it is only Christians that teach that humans cannot do anything good, or achieve any benefit in the afterlife, by our own works. We believe we are utterly and totally dependent on the grace of God.

Consequences

Believing in the Doctrines of Grace and Total Depravity has some serious implications for how we think of ourselves and others, doesn’t it? In one sense they can bring us to despair. We love to think that we are the masters of our own destiny and have the ability to impress others, even God, with our good deeds – and finding out that we can’t, can be a blow to our ego. On the other hand, this can also lead to a deflating depression where every time we start to feel good about ourselves we are reminded that we are utterly weak and wretchedly sinful. Wrongly applied, it can lead to a sort of depression that makes us feel worthless.

And so most people ignore it. It’s hard to tell people there is nothing they can do to save themselves because they are totally depraved sinners who are dead in their transgressions. And so the gospel gets repackaged to emphasize the more positive side, telling people that Jesus loves them, that they are special, chosen, children of light, separate from the dark and messed up world – which is all true, but not the whole story!

The Doctrines of Grace and Total Depravity don’t merely end in a depression funk where nothing matters – that’s only where it starts because that is where it must start. It’s meant to drive us to the bottom so we must look upward in worship and thanksgiving. Multiple times in the Bible it says that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (Psalm 138:6; Proverbs 3:34; Proverbs 29:23; Matthew 23:12; Luke 1:52; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5) And scripture gives us many different stories that emphasize the point.

Naaman had leprosy and was sent to be cured by the prophet Elisha, but didn’t like that the solution would be as simple as washing in the Jordan river seven times. He wanted something grand and dramatic and instant, not something so humbling that took so much time and obedience, so he got mad and was about to go home. It was only when he humbled himself that he was clean.

Jesus opposed the prideful Pharisees who thought their way was better than God’s. The rich young ruler came to Jesus, pridefully believing he had earned heaven, and Jesus sent him away grieving after being shown that his faith was in his riches, not God. Peter pridefully claimed that he would never deny Jesus, and Jesus told him that he wouldn’t just do it once, but three times.

The young, arrogant, powerful Pharisee named Saul, who hated Jesus and helped to imprison and kill Christians, was stopped dead in his tracks and struck blind by the Lord Himself so he could understand who he was really opposing. And later, while suffering on the mission field as an Apostle of Jesus, he says, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Looking Up

This is what the Doctrines of Grace and Total Depravity do for us, they humble us and make us look up to God as our helper and strength. They make us realize that we are not wise, but God our Father is and He will share that wisdom with us. We are not good, but Jesus is, and He will share that goodness with us. We are not helpful, but the Holy Spirit is, and He will make it so that we can be.

Therefore, when we look at these terrible situations in Charlottesville and Barcelona – and many other atrocities committed in the name of racism, prejudice, hate, and fear, throughout the world and here at home – we can utterly condemn them as sinful and wrong – but never use them as a way for us to feel superior to others. Instead, they become a reminder of the sinfulness that still dwells in our own hearts and how far we have come because of what Jesus has done in us.

Both Christians and non-Christians I know look at those events and feel the same swells of fear, pride, and hatred. Fear of people different than them and therefore worse. Pride that they and those like them are the ones who are right and good and correct. And then feelings of hatred swell and the desire for revenge takes hold. Now, maybe they aren’t the ones who are going to drive a car through a crowd, or bomb a building, or bring clubs to beat down people that disagree with them – but when someone does, they are secretly glad, saying they “got what’s coming to them”, which Jesus says in Matthew 5 and John in 1 John 3:15 is no different than murder because they have murdered them in their heart (Matthew 5:21-22).

A right thinking sees these events and it brings them sorrow. Sorrow for the sin in this world, for the evil perpetrated, for those who died not knowing the Lord, for the judgement on those who committed the crime, and then – sorrow for all the sins in their own heart that are no different than those they just watched. It drives a right thinking Christian to God in prayer, to their knees in repentance, to righteous anger at the sin, and to a desire to help.

Racism is Unbiblical and Unchristian

We look at the prejudice and racism and we condemn it as ungodly and unbiblical. We know the church has dealt with this from the very beginning as the Bible shows us that sectarianism and nationalism even started to infect the church even as it was forming. But it was wrong then and is wrong now.

  • All human beings of all races are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27).
  • God shows no partiality based on external difference. 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
  • Jesus told us to love our neighbour and then told the parable of the good Samaritan highlighting the sins of racism and nationalism (Luke 10:25–37).
  • In Ephesians 2:14 we read that Jesus “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” between peoples. Jesus smashed all those walls between us where we think we are better than anyone because of something external to us.
  • Galatians 3:28 we read that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Racism and prejudice are wrong and sinful. Jesus died for those sins, and Christians should obey Him by loving all people, regardless of their race. But these events don’t just remind us that something is wrong outside us but remind us of where our own heart is darkened in this area.

It should cause us to reflect on how we have disobeyed God by thinking our enemies are other people and not sin and Satan. Ephesians 6:12 says,

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

We should ask ourselves where our own racism and prejudice lies. Who do you hate because of their skin colour or nationality? Who are you prejudice against because of your upbringing? Who are you painting with the same hateful brush, lumping them in with all the others, because it’s easier than seeing them as individuals? Whose souls and eternities do you not care about? Who do you prefer because they are more like you? Who have you deemed unworthy of your attention or time? Are you sitting in an echo chamber that only feeds you what you want to or are you seeking through and turning all those thoughts over to God, judging them by the standards of God’s word?

A Hinderance to Evangelism

I know these stories are troubling, and I know that they can cause a “visceral” reaction within us – visceral means that we create by deep inward feelings rather than intellect – but I beg you not to let them. We are not immune to this and are going to see this more and more in our country and our area. We, in our church, are not immune to racism and prejudice, and we cannot allow them to take hold of our hearts.

We have been talking a lot lately about sharing our faith and this is directly connected. I said that we need to show people love before we share our faith, right? Well, if we hate these people because of our prejudices then we certainly won’t become friends with them, nor show them love, and therefore we will never be able to share with them. What group of people have you decided are not worthy of your love or the gospel?

I said that we need to pray before we share our faith. Are you praying for the salvation of the people you hate because of the colour of their skin or the nation they come from or the history you have with them? Probably not.

I said you need to tell them your story, right? Does your story include segregation, fear of certain people groups, and hatred against certain kinds of people? Or does your testimony share how you obey Jesus by loving the whole world, just as He does.

And I said you need to be patient with the people you are sharing with, right? Are you patient with those you hate? Jesus has given you much patience. He knows your thoughts and has watched as you claim to be one of His people but continue to sin, dismiss His Word, and reject His Spirit – but He still died for you, didn’t he? He traded Himself for you. He keeps forgiving you, loving you, helping you, equipping you, and listening to your prayers, doesn’t He? Why is he so patient? Because of His Amazing Grace and love for you. Are you showing the same to others? These events should cause us to reflect on and reject our own sin.

Gollum and Frodo

I know it’s not quite right to have an illustration at the end of the sermon, but this one, I think, will close us out well. All of this reminds me of a scene from Lord of the Rings.

For those who don’t know the Lord of the Rings, the ring as a sort of sentience, It’s alive and evil and corrupts all who wear it. There was one person who wore it for far too long. Smeagol found the ring one day while fishing and it immediately corrupted his heart. As he wore it he became more and more evil, more and more corrupted, until he was driven from his home town to live in a cave in the mountains of an enemy land. The ring gave Gollum unnatural life for hundreds of years, corrupting him inside and out until he was almost utterly consumed.

After hundreds of years, one day, when the hero of the Hobbit, Bilbo was wandering through the cave, the ring abandoned Gollum in order to find a new owner to corrupt in hopes of being taken out of the mountain. Gollum attacks Bilbo to get it back, but the ring turns Bilbo invisible and allows him to escape. But right before he is about to escape the mountain Gollum blocks his way and Bilbo is presented with a choice – kill Gollum or try to rush past him. He pulls his sword to put this vile creature to death, but instead of allowing his hate and fear to control him his heart fills with pity and Bilbo chooses to jump past instead.

In Lord of the Rings, the ring has passed from Bilbo to Frodo who has been given the task of destroying it – and we can see throughout the books that it’s slowly corrupting Frodo too. But Gollum has not gone away but is always following, always hoping to kill Frodo and get the ring back.

Then this happens:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrOqnZdvI6M

JRR Tolkien used the Ring as a symbol of sin and Gollum as the creature who has been totally corrupted by it. He is a hateful creature breathing lies, curses, and threats at all times. Frodo feels it would be best if Gollum would have just died. The world would be better off without him. Gollum is hateful and deserves to be hated and dispensed with. He’s in the way, stopping the good people from doing good. But Gandolf, a sort of Christ figure or at least Biblical prophet type in the book, does not hate him – he pities him.

And then he speaks these words: “It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

This reminds me of the Parable of the Weeds that Jesus told in Matthew 13:24-43.

“He put another parable before them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’’”

Just as Frodo wanted to kill Gollum, the servants want to go out and pick out all the weeds in the garden, but the farmer says no, stating that his servants are not wise enough or careful enough to be able to do the job without messing up the whole field. They are not reapers and though they think they know what they are doing, they would be pulling out good plants with the bad and would do damage to the crop. He says, “When the time is right I’ll let the reapers do it because they’ll do it right.” And in the next verses we learn that the reapers are angels sent by God – not humans.

What’s the point? We are too much like Frodo and the servants, wanting to hastily jump in with our poor judgement, prejudice, racism, and ill motives, and try to do God’s job for Him. That’s not our job. What does God want? For us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him. Our job, according to Jesus, is to love God, love our neighbour, and love our enemies – not dole out our own poorly conceived, ungodly, prejudice plans. We must repent and ask forgiveness for such thoughts….

 

[1] Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, “Grace”.

[2] https://www.gotquestions.org/how-to-get-to-heaven.html