Theology

Beginning to see how much I don’t know about the Reformation

Paul Bartley reflects on his recent encounters with the tumultuous world of Martin Luther and the Reformation he sparked.
Paul is in the formation programme for ordinands in the Diocese of Perth.

My wife Peggy and I had the privilege of being supported to attend the Ridley College Reformation study tour in June to Germany, France and Switzerland. It was a special year to go, as 2017 marks five hundred years since Luther is credited with sparking the Reformation. Family and friends took care of our four small children and we flew to Germany- a first time overseas for my wife. We had both been preparing as much as the general busyness of life allowed, reading Alister McGrath1 and Bruce Gordon2 and watching Carl Trueman’s lectures. This piece meanders through my reflections of Reformation study, with a focus on Luther.

Having the trip coming up certainly helped our enjoyment of our pre-trip learning. The potentially mundane watching of Trueman’s lectures on Luther while washing dishes at home in Perth in the weeks beforehand was as much part of the rich experience as the lofty heights of singing ‘Amazing Grace’ in the monastery, standing on the very same tiles as Luther would have. What a wealth of resources we enjoy here in Australia — in our well stocked theological libraries, on the internet and in documentaries! But we loved having this time together without the kids, travelling in such stunning countryside and at locations so central to the Reformation as Luther’s house in Wittenberg and St Peter's church in Calvin's Geneva.

Self forgiveness

Frances Cook relates how God gave her something precious and healing in the words of Paul.
Frances, a missionary of CMS SA/NT, works in the Pastoral Studies Centre (CEP), Theological College of the Anglican Church of Chile.

Sometime after the deaths of my parents, I went through a period of feeling very deeply my failures in relation to them. I tormented myself with questions: Why did I do this or not do that? Why did I say that but not say this?

I had never had much time for the idea of self-forgiveness. I was not aware of any hint of that in the Bible and, anyway, it seemed logically silly. Forgiveness implies an offended person and the offender – two people, not one. However, as these questions tormented me, I really felt the need to forgive myself. My theology said I just needed to trust more in God’s forgiveness, but I felt very deeply the need for self-forgiveness.

It is a really lovely thing that in the discipline of daily Bible reading, God speaks to us freshly. I was reading 1 Corinthians 4, where Paul, defending his apostleship, says that he is concerned for God’s judgement, not that of his readers. In v 3, almost as a throw-away line, if the Bible could have such a thing, the apostle writes these words which were so precious and healing to me, I do not even judge myself.

My problem was not that I could not forgive myself. Rather, I was standing in judgement on myself and that simply isn’t my job, any more than it is to judge others. I was not suffering from lack of self-forgiveness, but from self-condemnation, to which I had no right. With that, God healed me, beautifully! Praise be to him!

And, by the way, you won’t be surprised to hear that I found God to be a very much kinder and more generous judge than me, as he sees me in his Son who died for me.

The Bible really matters

Peter Jensen meditates upon how, as we read it, the Bible is in some ways jarring and puzzling, but also infinitely precious.
Peter Jensen was Archbishop of Sydney from 2001 to 2013.

This day, as far as I am aware, I met my first Tibetan. More than that, my first Tibetan Christian. I had been praying for this over the years since 2008, aware that there is a handful of Tibetans in Australia, mainly refugees. I had acquired a Tibetan Bible from India and had vowed that I would pass it on to my first Tibetan when I met them. And so I did, to the evident huge delight of the recipient. That joy reminded me how easy it is to take the scriptures for granted and how wonderful it is that they should be so readily available in our own tongue. This, of course, is the fruit of the Reformation. We praise God for William Tyndale for a start.

The more I read the Scriptures, the more I am filled with awe. Like the God whose Spirit inspired them, they are not to be treated lightly. Living as we do, in a society whose thought-forms are utterly alienated from God, we are frequently reminded how very strange the Bible is. I sometimes think that they are rather like a rough, irascible, shaggy unmannered uncle who comes to stay, creating unease and curiosity in equal measure.

The Strange Persistence of Guilt

Is guilt still a force in modern life? Ben Underwood recommends a recent essay on the persistence of guilt in the broken moral economy of the West.
Ben Underwood is editor of Essentials and Associate Minister at St Matthew’s Shenton Park, WA

I have a spirituality reading group, made up of fellow Shenton Park men, which I convene in order to have a chance to talk to my fellow suburbanites about deep things. Members take it in turns to choose an article, poem, book chapter, Youtube clip or immersive VR experience for us to digest and discuss. The rules are that stimulus material has to be short, and it has to raise the big questions. It’s a lot of fun, and has given me an opportunity to talk of Christian things with my neighbours. The last meeting we had was my turn to choose our material, and I stumbled across a great essay, which I felt would get us going. I was not disappointed, and we had an excellent evening of robust discussion.

Justification by faith and the pastor

Peter Brain rubs the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith into the heart of the pastor.
Bishop Peter Brain has just retired from the Parish of Rockingham, WA.

Martin Luther’s famous saying that justification by faith is the article of a standing or falling church has proven true over the past 500 years, but can be applied equally to those who are called to pastoral ministry.

The versical from Morning and Evening Prayer: 'Clothe your ministers with righteousness along with its response: And make your chosen people joyful, remind us that a very real benefit of justification by faith is that, when evident in the life and preaching of the minister, it will bring church members much joy'. This quote from Psalm 132:9 reminds us of the reformed nature of ministry, with the word minister replacing priest. Reformed pastors know that their standing with God is secure through faith in Christ not because of the size of the church they serve or the gifts they may have. Security in this truth will keep us from despair when there appears to be little response, from pride when there is and from using our members as fodder to feed our egos or drive our agendas. Ministers will want to live rightly in glad response to the one who has so graciously justified us through faith in Christ alone. This will bring joy to ministers and people alike along with glory to God.

Instruments of Hope

by Neil Bach

Recently I read the first of three large fictional works described as ‘thrillers’. One critic described these monumental detective stories as books ‘that will not be forgotten once closed’. The writer of the trilogy was brilliant at weaving his story and creating tension, but as the first story proceeded I was confronted with descriptions of violence and sexual perversion amongst most characters that highlighted the worst and evil aspects of our societies. The descriptions were not necessary to sustain the book’s plot and they left me feeling that my soul had been assailed rather than enlightened. Consequently I only flicked through the last sections of the book to see who were the villains, and took the remaining two volumes back to the library without reading them.

It is just one sobering example of my own survey of society. My recent experience of ‘retiring’ from full time Christian ministry has meant being able to watch more films than the average one per year my wife and I saw at a cinema. I have also engaged afresh with the general culture. Despite the many wonderful benefits in our societies my recent experience leaves me troubled at western societies’ direction. Secular and non-Christian values have been disseminated and are absorbed by western people in an extremely wide way. Further our society not only finds little room for God, but some within it are currently engaged in seeking to deconstruct the Christian values that have made our society great.

I know that I am not alone, and my observation of western democracies indicates to me that conservative people of Christian persuasion are saying, “we’ve had enough and are not allowing our society to disappear down some sink hole of godless irrelevance.”

From where do I draw strength at the present time? There are three things that act for me, as anchors for my soul, to give hope in Christ-like living.

The first is the anchor of the cross of Christ. Despite the existence of Easter celebrations in the west, the cross of Christ is easily pushed to the edges in modern Christian writing and living, and often the cross’ meaning is diluted. For the cross is the only answer to the reality of evil in our world, it is the only solution … for education, psychology, and decent living, that have their place, cannot deal with evil. Billy Graham once wrote “Jesus’ greatest work was accomplished in just three dark hours on Calvary where he died for our sins.”[i]

That work showed God’s deepest love for us, the depravity of human evil he had to deal with, and his deep hatred of sin. Christ’s death dealt with God’s rightful anger at human sin, and paid the penalty for our sins. He stood in our place, and gained salvation for all who put their trust in God’s completed work at the cross.[ii] God converts those who accept the power of the cross into their lives, and makes us new creatures able to live for him in his world. Our values and lives are transformed and so is the society in which we live when it accepts the importance of the cross and Christianity.

The second is the anchor of the Holy Spirit. The slave trader turned clergyman John Newton said “The religion of a sinner stands on two pillars, namely what Christ did for us in his flesh, and what he performs in us by his Spirit. Most errors arise from an attempt to separate these two.”[iii] It is true in my experience that to just trust in the cross of Christ, as crucial as that is, is not enough. I need to daily seek the fullness of the Holy Spirit to live for God[iv]; to deflect and defeat the wrong values and experiences the world can offer. When I have neglected to live in the Spirit’s power, thinking I could exist on cruise control, I have been diminished in effectiveness. Spirit living means to deeply understand the Bible, through study and daily reading and then praying earnestly for God’s strength, sensitivity and wisdom day by day. It means responding to God’s agendas not mine. It starts with my own person and radiates like a stone thrown into the pond, to all my thoughts and actions and to everyone and every organization that I meet and correspond with. This is to do what Scripture teaches, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”[v]

The third is the anchor of a future that is God’s future. It strongly encourages my heart that God’s kingly rule continues to be felt in his world now, to transform people and institutions, and that this rule of God will not end. We are assured that the future is God and God’s heaven. Years ago a friend and I walked on a campus and a great number of people leaving a class were walking the other way. My young Christian friend, not long converted, said to me, “story of my life walking against the crowd.” He is still doing it. So are all Christians, not weighed down by a world that is for the moment, walking in the other direction.

We know that by embracing the power of the cross, seeking the filling of the Holy Spirit, and anticipating our future hope, we can be the powerful instruments for God in a society needing him.

 


[i] ‘What kept Jesus on the cross?’. Billy Graham, Decision March 2001, p1

[ii] Romans 3:21-26

[iii] Memoirs of the Rev  John Newton’.John Newton, Newton’s Works April 1839, xlvii.

[iv] Ephesians 5:18

[v] James 1: 5 New International Version, 2011

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