Happy Reformation Day!

While everyone is running around, and for good fun, filling bags of candy today, I'm thinking on this All Hallow's Eve of one particular saint worth remembering. Especially today.

499 years ago today, Martin Luther tacked up the Wittenberg Door an invitation to discuss 95 theses concerning the sale of indulgences. Next year is gonna be a yuge year for publishing, celebrating, and discussing the Protestant Reformation, but it is worth stopping every year to think on the meaning of indulgences other than a KitKat bar.

In that vein, here are a few helpful resources I've found of late to help me, as a Protestant, think about the Reformation.

"When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ``Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." - Martin Luther, Thesis 1

Semper Reformanda.




The Gospel According to Isaiah

A Year in the Gospel #4 It would not be unfair to the other prophets, nor flattery to Isaiah, to call the book of Isaiah the pinnacle of Israel’s prophetic books. Isaiah rises above the other voices to a high majesty, glory, and splendor that adorns not only the promises of the Old Testament but dominates and drives forward the writings of the New Testament. As indicated in the previous post, we saw how Isaiah 40 acts as a hinge upon which the book turns, and the pages, with every turn, bear ever more glorious promises of the Good News.

Isaiah 40-66 focuses upon the great deliverance that the Lord would work by bringing Israel out of its captivity in Babylon and restoring the people of God and their fortunes in the land of promise. And yet, Isaiah is regularly carried above and beyond the immediate rescue from Babylon and up to greater deliverances.

In Isaiah we see the term gospel or good news (euangelion) take on great significance,  and which later John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Apostles would pick up and pour into it the life and death of Jesus, which we will later see.  Upon a reading of Isaiah, in light of the New Testament, it is quite impressive how much of this prophet of the Old underlies the whole of the New.

Here are the passages which in the English we most clearly see Isaiah speak of good news. Of all these, four of them, if you know the New Testament well, will sound very familiar. Isaiah 40 is picked up in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, 1:1-15. Isaiah 52:7 is used by Paul to refer directly to those who proclaim the Gospel of Christ (Romans 10:14-17).  Isaiah 60:6 certainly hearkens to the three magi and their gifts to the infant Christ (Matthew 2:9-12). And Isaiah 61:1 is the very passage that Jesus himself picked out and read in the synagogue as the heart of his own mission (Luke 4:18-19). Here they are:

Isaiah 40:9 “Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, 'Behold your God!'

Isaiah 41:27 “I was the first to say to Zion, 'Behold, here they are!' and I give to Jerusalem a herald of good news.

Isaiah 52:7 “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, 'Your God reigns.'

Isaiah 60:6 “A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.

Isaiah 61:1 “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

This Good News that Isaiah declares to is full of great truths and rich promises. Here are a few of them:

First, it is the LORD God of Israel alone who can save (Isaiah 43-45), “I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior” (Isaiah 43:11). This is why the New Testament’s claim that Jesus is the Savior leads inevitably to the formulation of the divinity of Christ. God, and God alone, can save. And we need to remember this ourselves time and time again both in light of our own rescue and the rescue of others. This is hope for you and me, God saves us. If He is doing the work, how can it fail?

Second, God is going forgive His people and restore them to a flourishing land of promise with the banners of the City of the Lord, Zion, flying full from its walls. This is the good news of which the mountains are to sing. Jerusalem’s walls will be strong but her gates will be open. The wealth of the nations will flow in. The kings of the world will enter to worship. The ships will bring their treasures to Zion. Isaiah speaks gloriously of this time: “they shall call you the City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel… I will make you majestic forever, a joy from age to age” (Is 60:14-15). All of this adding up to demand a future for God’s people that we even yet now wait for, the millennial kingdom after the triumph of the Gospel.

Third, God will save not only the people of Israel but also all the peoples of the earth who attach themselves to the God of Israel. Here we see the future salvation of the Gentiles implied. “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered” (Is 56:8).

Fourth, Isaiah gains a glimpse of a restoration that surges and bounds over the mere return of Israel to the renewal of everything. “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness” (Is 65:17-18). Thus, the ancient origins of John’s vision of a New Jerusalem at the center of a new heavens and a new earth. The Good News is cosmic, universal, comprehensive: everything will be remade.

Fifth, the work of the LORD to deliver will be centered upon the form of a servant of the LORD. This mysterious figure at the center of many debates over interpretation will be at the heart of God’s work. This servant will have the Spirit of the Lord, he will bring justice to the nations, and in those marvelous words, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Is 42:3). This Servant will be high and exalted, and wise, and also, to the astonishment of all, he will be despised, rejected, smitten, wounded, and crushed: “and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53:6).

And through this work, the servant will save: “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Is 53:11).

Isaiah 53 will be used more than a little in the New Testament. Indeed, all these promises undergird the proclamation of the Gospel of the New Testament, and it is, as we have seen, a glorious, rich Gospel indeed.

The Jerusalem Post, 685 BC

A Year in the Gospel #3 The Prophet Isaiah: (Isaiah 40:1-5, 9)

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,     and cry to her that her warfare is ended ,      that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand     double for all her sins. A voice cries, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;     make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up,     and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level,     and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,     and all flesh shall see it together,     for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’” “Get you up to a high mountain,     O Zion, herald of good news, lift up your voice with strength,     O Jerusalem, herald of good news;     lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah,     ‘Behold your God!’”

Front page of Jerusalem Post, on some hot day in Judah, 685 BC: “Isaiah, Senior Prophet Finally Foretells Something Good.” A day later, the columns are gushing about King Manasseh’s new religious policies, the religious section is full with new houses of worship, and the Hebrew stock exchange is up. Prophets for Asherah and Baal each have full page ads, and the demand for ad-space from fortune-tellers and necromancers has the Post owners giddy. The gods are marching in, and the shekels are rolling.

Of course, there was no Jerusalem Post in 685 BC, but there was a King Manasseh and there was a Prophet Isaiah. And strangely, the evidence seems to show that Isaiah spent much of good King Hezekiah’s reign foretelling mostly coming judgment, and then began declaring some incredibly good news during the dreadful rule of wicked Manasseh. The king was hauling in freshly minted idols daily right into the Temple of the Lord while Isaiah was declaring Gospel news from Yahweh.

How was Isaiah thanked for his good news? Well, according to tradition, Manasseh had Isaiah sawn in half. Isaiah’s crime? Preaching future rescue only thru Yahweh or maybe all the not-so-nice things about the other gods. Ironically, Manasseh would remember the word of Yahweh and repent but not before gaining the reputation as the most wicked and pagan of all Judah’s kings.

Nevertheless, Isaiah’s word remained and it remained to Jesus’s day and it remains to our day. There is a marked contrast between Isaiah chapters 1 – 39 and chapters 40-66. In fact, the difference is so glaring that some scholars believe these two sections are from at least two different prophets! That issue aside, the point is that the prophet who had been declaring so much coming woe from Yahweh began to proclaim comfort from the same Yahweh.

The prophet is told to comfort God’s people and speak tenderly to her. Why? Peace is coming. Forgiveness is coming. Pardon is promised from all her iniquities and they were many. And here Isaiah says that the people are to prepare for something, or actually someone that is coming. First, God is going to send another prophet who will cry aloud, “in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!” Second, this is going to result in a great leveling. Mountains will be made low, valleys will be exalted. Which is to say, the proud will be humbled, the humble will be exalted. This is going to call for something the prophets call repentance.

And here in this passage we find one of the first mentions of Gospel news in the Bible. The prophet commands all of Zion to climb mountains and lift up a mighty shout of this good news. Jerusalem is told to raise, lift, trumpet to every city of Judah: “Behold, your God!” Peace, forgiveness, and pardon are coming because God is on His way. This is the Good News: the LORD is coming to His people. He is coming, and when He stands in their presence it can be said, “behold, your God.”

It would be eight centuries before these words were picked up by another writer but the promise was as good as done. God declared through the same prophet, preceding verse (8), “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God will stand forever.”

So several things to note: First, Gospel words are words of comfort and though they demand repentance, they are to be spoken tenderly. This makes me think about styles of preaching. Do we need to scream through microphones into amplified sound systems? I think God’s Word works by its own internal power, not our volume. And should we ever berate God’s people? Given that there is a time for everything but mostly, tough words don’t have to be harsh words. Speak tenderly, the best always do. “Speak the truth in love.”

Second, Gospel words are good because they are promises of peace and pardon and forgiveness from sin. God is coming for sinners and coming to forgive them. This means that when he shows up the sinners should fess up and admit it. This was a particularly sticky point for Jesus with the Pharisees, to receive forgiveness you’ve got to know you need it.

Third, Gospel promises are as sure as God Himself. This is not going to be an amateur rescue. This is good news from the very mouth of God, and God is going to perform it. Not I, not you, not we, but He will do the saving. And He will do it when He is ready.

Fourth, my previous point about volume notwithstanding, Gospel news calls for preaching that moves. Isaiah says to rise up, lift up, raise up the voice. It is not preaching where, as Doug Wilson says, “the bland lead the bland.” Gospel proclamation is preaching + passion + comfort + tenderness + strength + rejoicing. All later homiletical counsel aside, the best advice is already here in Isaiah 40:1-9.


Beginning with the End

A Year in the Gospel #2 “And raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 2:6-7

“And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.” Revelation 21:5-7

The last book of the Christian Scriptures gives us a dazzling portrait of the end. It is not the end of all things rather it is a new beginning. Nevertheless, it is the end of things as we know them. And God, in His goodness, provides for us this startling, radiant scene displaying that end so that we know now in this present of “light, momentary affliction” how glorious is the Gospel promise of our end, or rather, or next, new beginning.

I want to start off this year in the Gospel by leaping over questions of meaning, fact, history, and all the other facets of this glorious Gospel of grace and jump right into why this Gospel—Good News—is the best news in the world.

Have you ever thought about that? We mention the “gospel” in passing so often. We talk of “gospel” music, “gospel” preaching, “gospel” churches, but who cares? Or, why care? Or why is this Gospel good news? Do we act like it is good news? Do we live like it is good news? Do we pray like it is good news? Do we worship like it is good news? Do we sing Gospel music in {your favorite style here} like it is good news? Do we share it like it is good news?

Often, no. But it is good news. Indeed, it is nearly incredible news. We need to brush off all the best superlatives and insert them here: amazing, unbelievable, awesome, breathtaking, super good news. When was the last time you thought on the claims of the Gospel you believe? Take time to carefully read the passages above. Do you hear what you are saying? How unbelievable is that?

First, on Ephesians 2:6-7, the Apostle Paul is stating that in the present moment as believers in Jesus we are now sitting with Him in heavenly places. Jesus is right now showing us grace and mercy and in the coming ages He is going to over and over again, repeatedly, time and time again show His mercy toward us. But Paul can’t contain himself at this point. He doesn’t merely mention grace but he goes on and on about it, piling word upon word. Listen carefully: “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us.” It is grace demonstrated by kindness, and it is riches of that grace, but more so, it is abundant, profligate, immeasurable riches of graces toward us!

Second, in Revelation 21:5-7, the Apostle John is visualizing the end of this beginning when what Paul has discussed, “seated with him in heavenly places,” is quite literally true. There are so many promises packed in here that it is stunning. Firstly, Jesus upon the throne says, “Behold, I am making all things new!” Everything is going to be remade, every good thing is going to be restored, every Gospel promise will made a reality, and nothing will be untouched, untransformed, dormant. Secondly, He promises unending access to the waters of life without payment. Thirdly, to the person who conquers a heritage is promised: “I will be his God and he will be my son.” How is this conquering done? It is by the blood of the Lamb and loving Jesus more than life (see Rev. 12:11), and by faith in that Jesus (1 John 5:1-4). Through the blood of Jesus we are brought to God and what was true of Jesus, that God the Father had said of Him, “you are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22), will be true of us in that Day.

These are staggering promises and they are the best kind because they are the true kind. You have the best reason in the world to roll out of bed in the morning in hope, to run to church and sing His praises with a radiant heart, to go do great work as unto Christ. It is because in this Gospel you receive Christ, you “get” Jesus forever, and in getting Jesus, you receive everything you need most but never knew—until now. You are today a Son, a Daughter, of God, and in this age and in every age to come, God is preparing to show you the wonders of His love.

Standing on New Shores

A Year in the Gospel #1 “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15:1-2

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Romans 1:16-17

For me, 2013 was a year which brought me to rediscover the riches of the Gospel of grace. Perhaps it is better to say that the Gospel found me—again. I feel like I’ve been thrown up on the shore of the New World with the sun blazing brilliantly, almost blinding me but warming me and filling my heart with a sudden, unexpected happiness. After months at sea, tossing topsy-turvy in a tiny wooden wave-beaten boat, providence has brought me safely to dry land.

It appears, on the one hand, as a New World. There it is before me, shores stretching to the north and to the south as far as one can navigate, and leafy, wooded forest filling out the land to the farthest edges of the horizon where the sun is moving to set. God’s Gospel appears to us like that. Both beckoning and bewildering and always overwhelming. Here are new lands to explore, adventures of faith to be had, abundance of mercies to be found, and treasures to uncover.

On the other hand, it has always been there. I knew it was here, or over there, I believed in it and I loved the idea of it but it was sort of scary. As happy as I now stand in the sun of this new world, so long as I was in my rigid little craft I felt like I had everything under control, comfortable in my well-known floating isolation where everything and everyone was already known and made sense. The New World that I long knew was there was too overwhelming with opportunity, too vast in freedom, too immense of promise. But once life’s storms by God’s grace crashed my little ship on the rocks, my only hope was to venture out onto the many mercies offered ashore.

The extended metaphor isn’t perfect but it describes how I feel affected. And this is why I plan to start a personal writing project on the Gospel. I will spend a year in the Gospel. I hope to spend my whole life in the Gospel but one must begin somewhere. Every week I’m going to blog about the Gospel, what it is, what it means, what it changes, how it transforms, and wherever else it leads.

I need this Gospel. I love this Gospel. This is the Gospel I received. This is the Gospel in which I stand. And this year, I’m going to hold fast—to this Gospel.