Fake News…in the Church

Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. (Psalm 119:89, ESV)

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed the famous 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany, Historians have marked this event as the beginning of a revival known as the Reformation. It is the most important event outside the pages of Scripture. Sadly, most people know very little about it or why it happened.

Social media today is filled with what Donald Trump calls “fake news.” It is usually disinformation that is intended to promote or destroy a political position. Since I have people among my Facebook “friends” on both sides of the current political fence, I often chortle at what people will believe, but it begs the question, “How do we know what is true?”

Fake news was Martin Luther’s struggle with the Roman Catholic Church in his day. Like so many political groups today who solicit funds from their political base, the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century was selling “indulgences” to their base. Buying these indulgences would supposedly shorten a deceased loved one’s time in purgatory according to the highest office of the church. But doing good works had never rid Luther of the nagging sense of guilt that afflicted his soul. It wasn’t until he recognized that real forgiveness was to be found in God’s grace, applied to him by Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. Luther recognized the sale of indulgences (among other things) for what it was — an elaborate fund raising scheme that was duping innocent people into a false sense of security. So he objected by nailing his 95 Theses (grievances) on the door of the church.

This event was not well received by those in the church hierarchy, so Luther had to defend his objections, leading ultimately to the question of “How do we know what is true?” Interestingly, it is the same question raised by Trump’s term, “fake news.” Those who followed Luther’s lead recognized that truth is not a political position. It is not the “spin” determined by a body of human beings, even if they are church officials or people in power. Truth, for the Reformers, was objective and revealed by God in Scripture.

The Reformers were not monolithic. They had different approaches to a number of issues, but what they did agree on was the source of truth. In some relatively minor areas, they did disagree on what Scripture taught (hence, we have many Protestant denominations). But the final authority was Scripture, not the Church’s interpretation of Scripture.

In our day Protestants and Catholics still disagree on the source of truth, but now the disagreement is compounded because there is a large portion of the society that doubts the existence of truth. Postmodern relativism has created a world in which every statement is fake news to someone. Every statement is someone’s spin.

But the legacy of the Reformation — the reason that it is the most significant event outside the pages of Scripture — is that it identifies that truth is objective and then it defines its source — God Himself. In the words of King David, “Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89, ESV). Thank you for your courageous stand, Dr. Martin Luther. Thank you to the many other Reformers who were martyred for firmly standing for the truth. May many in this generation say with you, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”

Scripture . . . on Scripture

Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path (Psalm 119:105)

Martin Luther led the Reformation to reclaim the Judeo-Christian Scriptures as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. My life, also, has been transformed by the Scripture, but Luther and I are not alone. Consider how the great saints viewed the Word of God.

Moses’ last words of instruction to the Hebrew people were, “For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess” (Deuteronomy 32:47, ESV).

Joshua’s first instructions from the Lord included, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:8, ESV).

David wrote Psalm 19 to describe the two primary ways in which the Lord reveals Himself: natural revelation in creation and special revelation in the Law. That is where he says that the Law is “more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold” (10). Later he penned a literary masterpiece, Psalm 119, in which he creates an eight line stanza for each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Almost all of the 176 verses mention some important quality of the Law.

At the close of Isaiah’s prophecy, he quotes the Lord as saying essentially, “I am not impressed by what you can build or do for me; I am impressed by the one who trembles at My Word” (Is 66:1-2).

After the Exile, Ezra the scribe “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10 ESV). He would later make a covenant of obedience with those among the returning exiles who “trembled at the command of God” (10:3).

In a chapter describing the false prophets of his day who ignored the Law, Jeremiah quotes the Lord, “‘Is not my word like fire,’ declares the LORD, ‘and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets,’ declares the LORD, ‘who steal my words from one another. Behold, I am against the prophets,’ declares the LORD, ‘who use their tongues and declare, “declares the LORD.” Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams,’ declares the LORD, ‘and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all,’ declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 23:29-32, ESV).

When Jesus began His ministry His first recorded sermon included those famous words, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:18-19, ESV). Then, on the night before His crucifixion, John quotes Jesus as saying, “Your Word is truth” (John 17:17, ESV).

Paul’s last letter declared, “All Scripture is breathed out by God . . . I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word” (2 Tim 3:16-4:2).

Peter also identified the Scripture as of divine origin when he wrote, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21, ESV).

There are other people in biblical history that were transformed by the Word of God (consider kings Hezekiah and Josiah). Like these people the re-discovery of the Word by Martin Luther and the Reformers was what changed the world 500 years ago; real revival will only happen when the Church today does the same.

The Significance of the Reformation

The Significance of the Reformation

The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple. (Psalm 119:130, ESV)

Five hundred years ago this month, an event took place that changed my life. No, I am not that old — despite what my kids think.

In October, 1517 an Augustinian monk nailed a list of grievances to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany and ignited a revival that historians have called the Reformation. Martin Luther’s issue ultimately was quite simple: The Judeo-Christian Scripture is the final authority in the world. Certainly many other ideas have spun off of that one, but this is the root which became the foundation of our civilization.

I was a naive, confused college student (interestingly, at a Lutheran liberal arts college) when I was first confronted with this idea, but not in the way you might think. Instead of promoting Luther’s idea, the faculty of my college had bought into the notion that to believe the Scripture was the height of ignorance. Only a fool would believe that Moses walked through the Red Sea on dry ground, that Jonah could survive three days in the belly of a fish, or that Jesus could walk out of His grave. I can only imagine what Luther himself might think about those who identified themselves with his name!

The fervor with which the faculty at my school repudiated the Bible’s authority made me wonder “Why?” If this book were just an anthology of myths and legends, why are there whole courses at this and other colleges describing why we should not believe it? Why are there endless books being written to explain away events that they tell us are comparable to Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan? That fervor, rather than causing me to scoff at the fools who could believe such nonsense, drove me to it. I had to know whether it really was true or not.

That same issue — Truth — was behind Martin Luther’s stand against the excesses of the Roman Church. The circumstances he faced were different than mine, but the issue was the same, and that’s why that event changed my life. Yet I had more wrestling to do: What were the answers to the weighty questions that were raised by my professors? How can I reconcile seemingly unbelievable events with the modern world? As I pursued the Truth, those answers slowly came.

About this time I heard a noted (evangelical) theologian say, “The Scripture is God’s revelation of Himself and His will to men.” Although some of the answers were still fuzzy in my mind, it occurred to me that, if this man were correct, nothing was more important than finding out about Him. So I began a practice of reading through the Bible annually, which has continued to this day, and I intend to keep doing it until the day I die. At first I didn’t understand a lot of the history I was reading; I certainly didn’t understand many of the rules the Lord imposed upon His people, but it was His revelation of Himself. Through it I came to know Him. Slowly I began to make sense of the world around me.

David understood what I experienced when he wrote, “The unfolding of Your Word gives light” (Ps 119:130). Truth is not usually a lightning flash and boom of thunder (it can be, read Psalm 29). It is a methodical unfolding of His Truth. Sometimes, as with Martin Luther, it compels us to take a stand, but the courage to do so happens in the quiet moments as He reveals Himself.

Restore Us Again

Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us! Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation. Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly. Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land (Psalm 85:4-9 ESV).

These days, whenever I see the word, “restore,” in the Scriptures, I take note. Our nation, which began well, has drifted further and further from the God of Israel. The drift has come to the point where many in our society deny the Christian roots of our nation. One political party even removed any reference to God from its platform a few years ago.

We are not the first nation to drift from the Truth. It has been a problem since the day that Joshua led Israel to conquer and settle the land Palestine. On numerous occasions in the book of Judges Israel drifted from the Lord, cried out to Him when their enemies humbled them by oppressing them, and the Lord delivered them. This pattern happened repeatedly throughout the 900 years when ancient Israel lived in the land of Palestine. Finally, after many warnings, God carried off half of the nation (the Northern Kingdom of Israel) by the hand of the Assyrians. Even then, the Southern Kingdom of Judah drifted away just 200 years later.

Yet God never gave up on His people. Just before Judah met its end in the Babylonian Captivity, Jeremiah the Prophet declared, “Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD of hosts is his name: ‘If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever’” (Jeremiah 31:35-36 ESV).

The United States of America cannot claim the promise that God gave to His ancient people, but individuals who are His can be secure in His promises. Yet many of us long for the preservation of our Christian heritage here in America so that our children and grandchildren will have the same opportunities to prosper and know Him. But this will only happen if the Lord restores our land. Political solutions are insufficient.

The psalmist explained in this passage what God’s people need to do if we would see the Lord restore our land — “hear what God the LORD will speak,” and “let them not turn back to folly.” The Lord will not restore our land until and unless His people listen to what He is saying to us through His Word. He will also not restore our land until this nation turns away from its “folly,” those sins that we have condoned despite the clear dictates of the Scripture. This is called “repentance.”

My Fundamental Flaw

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV).

I had a rough week last week. I learned that I am diabetic. For all of my adult life I have been healthy and whole, generally speaking. My back surgery in high school limited some of my activities, but not significantly. A dozen or so years ago I learned I had high blood pressure, but that was attributable to some OTC sinus medications, which I have cut out. I could stand to lose a few pounds, but no one would consider me to be significantly overweight.

I was really shocked when my doctor informed me of my diabetes. In fact, I was in denial for a couple of days. I considered myself to be a healthy man that had an occasional illness. In fact, I haven’t even had a major cold or flu for a couple of years. How could I have this fundamental flaw in my body? Yet multiple tests confirmed the diagnosis. Instead of viewing myself as a healthy man with an occasional illness, I must now consider myself to be a flawed individual, seeking to control my symptoms.

Americans (in fact, all mankind) today face the same issue as I do — to view ourselves as fundamentally flawed rather than generally whole. Like me, the society is mostly in denial. How could we be the biggest and best, the richest and most technologically advanced, and have a basic flaw to our character? Yet, the evidence should convince us, like the additional tests did for me. Justice is what the vocal minority opines it to be rather than an objective standard in our society; we (taxpayers, that is) continue to fund the barbaric practices of the abortion rights lobby that would make Attila blush; and, contrary to the most basic natural knowledge, we have declared the legality of same sex marriage. Yet we go on believing that the problems in our society come from outside ourselves — we’re good, the environment is not.

Biblical Christianity is the only religious system that views mankind as basically sinful, instead of basically good. All others — even the pseudo-Christian groups — mask the evil in our hearts by suggesting that a certain combination of good works will overcome any moral deficiency in us.

Several years ago, after one of the school shootings in our society, I heard a local radio personality interview a mental health professional. As they deplored the violence the host asked his guest, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” (echoing the book by the same title that was popular at the time). The underlying assumption was that we are good people, and that bad things happen to us from outside ourselves. Jesus was clear, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19, ESV, emphasis added).

The Founding Fathers of our country lived in an era when the foundational tenets of the society were Biblical. A generation before the Revolution the Colonies experienced a religious event known to historians as The Great Awakening. The moral courage that was required for them to put at risk their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” came from the Great Awakening. (Do you think any of our current crop of politicians would put their lives and fortunes at risk? Most are there to make a fortune!) The writings of Washington, Adams, Madison and Jay are steeped in a Biblical worldview, a worldview in which they understood that the human heart is “desperately sick” as Jeremiah noted (above).

To this condition the Bible declares that the atoning sacrifice of Jesus is the answer. The Apostle Paul declared that “[that sacrifice] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16, ESV). Many have been tried, but no other solution will work.

I now recognize the fundamental flaw in my body, leading me to significant changes in my lifestyle. Assuming I get this under control, it may not affect me as it does some other people. But I can never look at a restaurant menu from the perspective of a healthy person again. Until and unless the people of our society change their perspective, the problems we face will continue to spin out of control, as surely as the blood sugar of us diabetics.

Free Indeed

Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, The people whom He has chosen for His own inheritance (Psalm 33:12)

This morning I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Restore America.” I don’t know if the sentiment is a faith-based one or merely the patriotism of conservative politics. I know I am on many email loops that complain about what is happening to our country, so maybe my eye is more attuned to these sentiments on various platforms, but there seems to be a lot of them these days. I am sure that if we polled each of the sources, we would come up with a couple dozen or more solutions to our country’s plight. They likely would all overlap on the plank of changing the residents of Washington, DC, but beyond that every opinion would be different.

The men and women that founded this country were people of rare courage, a courage that we don’t see duplicated in our day. The tyranny they fought against cost them “[their] lives, [their] fortunes and [their] sacred honor.” And it wasn’t just the men and women who used to be named in our history books; they included the unnamed minutemen in Massachusetts and the anonymous soldiers at Valley Forge, not to mention their wives and children that tended their homes and farms while they were away. But today, precious few of us have the courage to sacrifice the material substance that we have accumulated to stand against the re-energized forces of tyranny that have emerged in our country. What is the difference between then and now? What was the source of their courage in that day? Can it be recovered, and if so, how?

I submit that the source of that courage was the revival known as the Great Awakening that swept through Colonial America 25 – 30 years prior to the Revolution. This Revival, the chief spokesman of which was Jonathan Edwards (although there were many others), restored the spiritual foundation to the American Colonies that had led to the founding of most of them. That spiritual foundation was distinctively Christian – not Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or even secular. Men and women were set free from the bondage of sin in their hearts and realized they were created to be free from every kind of bondage. Consider the famous words of Jesus: “If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed (John 8:36). Paul said it differently, but the meaning was the same: “who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:4).

Men who have never been set free from sin are seldom willing to risk their lives and livelihoods to be set free politically. They are far more likely to learn to manage their bondage and make the best of it because they have no assurance, indeed no real hope, that their sacrifice would result in any substantive change. At best they would join a movement of others toward freedom, which is why we know the name of Thomas Paine and those of a few other humanists of that era (but none from any other religious system).

The cry in America for restoration will be just an impotent cry until there is a genuine revival of Christianity in America. The only source of the courage we need in an oppressive age is one that transcends time because the restoration we seek will not happen overnight and few of us  – outside of authentic relationships with Jesus – are willing to sacrifice for something that will not benefit us personally.