Sunday, November 12, 2023

FAREWELL SERMON #2: 1 Samuel 12

 




This is the second of my three farewell sermons, in which I want to use the words of Samuel by which he addresses his final words to the nation of Israel. Again I remind you that I am not Samuel, and you are not Israel.  But there are abiding and useful principles here which we want to explore for  our benefit.

1.      SOME BACKGROUND TO  1 SAMUEL 12 

Samuel was effectively the last Judge of Israel. He follows the book of Judges. In his days Israel was looking for a king (1 Samuel 8). Despite many warnings from Samuel concerning the manners and the ways of kings, and despite the fact that Israel actually had God as their King ( for she was a theocratic nation), they insisted on having flesh and blood to rule over them, and so Israel receives their first king in the person of Saul (1 Samuel 9 & 10).  Initial reviews on Saul are wonderful, until he loses the plot.

2.      12:1  A LESSON IN BIBLICAL LEADERSHIP

12:1 “And Samuel said to all Israel, "Behold[1], I have obeyed your voice in all that you have said to me and have made a king over you”. Let’s try to understand this. If kings were dangerous to Israel’s existence, why did Samuel give into them now? The answer is found in 8:19-22. It was actually God who handed Israel over to her own desires. Sometimes we just have to learn the hard way. And the problem is actually not with wanting a king. The problem is that kings are sinners, and people are sinners. Sinful kings can easily become manipulative and abusive and sinful people can easily become lazy and non-involved, allowing their kings to take over their lives. Kings take away our need to lean heavily on God.

Let me apply this immediately. The church under the headship of her king, the Lord Jesus is designed to function as a body, as each member participates according to their spiritual gifts and abilities (1 Cor.12, Rom.12:3-8). To the church under the headship of Christ belongs the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12). That was exactly the way Israel was designed to function under the leadership of God. The function of OT/ NT leaders was never to take away or substitute the responsibility of the work of ministry from the people, but to teach, lead  and encourage God’s people toward the exercise of their duty. Pastors/ elders are not given to do the work of the ministry. They participate in the work of the ministry by equipping the saints.

Again, what is the problem with leaders and what is the problem with the people? The leaders very easily take over the work in a power grabbing fashion, and the people easily become laid back and lazy. They like to pay someone to do the work for them.  The problem with the leader is that if he doesn’t keep himself sanctified and under the rule of Christ, he begins to feel a sense of entitlement and of inflated self- importance. That would become Saul’s problem very soon. And it would lead to his eventual disqualification. Knowing this, and despite his reservations Samuel appointed Israel's first human king by God’s permission.

3.      12:2- 5 NOT SO WITH SAMUEL…

We are not going to engage in a study of the differing leadership styles of Saul and Samuel.  All that needs to be said is that Samuel’s leadership style most closely reflects that which Jesus taught us about servant leadership[2].

Israel was not to be the king’s possession. It was not to be Saul’s or Samuel’s possession. Israel was God’s people, and as such they were not to be abused – least of all economically (see Samuel’s warning again in 8:10-18). The same is true for the New Testament church. Applying this once again to the NT this does not mean that the church should not (even generously) reward those servant leaders that labour in the Word (2 Tim 5:17,18). Sadly, many Namibian churches are sinning against the Lord by not providing an adequate living stipend for their pastors. Having said that we must insist that pastors are not there to enrich themselves. That is the other side of the sad story as it relates to the current phenomenon  of  abusive prosperity teachers. The kings of Israel quickly became very opulent and self- entitled, but you could not say this about Samuel.

As I lay down this calling, I am calling you to judge me in this matter (12:3ff). I have not used my position to enrich myself. The generous stipend that you have given me lately was substantially used to buy a home. That is my husbandly duty to my wife. I have not hoarded money. I have given to others in need. I have spent much of the stipend in one way or the other on this ministry… and with deep joy. I am not walking out here as a wealthy man.

Furthermore I also assure you, that as much as I know, I have not wanted to seek glory for myself. I have not laboured for your recognition or your praise. I was thankful when I received your encouragement, but I carried on even when I did not feel encouraged, knowing that our ultimate reward shall come from God. 

I also have not wanted to hold on to my position.  I am laying down my work for these reasons

(i)                 my work among you, as a pastor is done. I have given what I could.

(ii)               it is now time for a sustained sabbatical, and if God keeps me healthy, I wish to continue in a ministry that is more focussed  on my strengths  

(iii)             I have worked myself out of a job. God has supplied new leaders - and you need   to use them, and I must get out of the way for them to do that. That doesn’t mean that I cease to exist. It simply means that I exist in a different capacity.   It is interesting  to note that although Samuel closes with this farewell speech, we still hear of him  in other contexts, until we finally we hear  of his death in  1 Samuel 25:1.

Samuel is a study in integrity. Our ethics are driven by personal beliefs and values. Our morals are expressed in the way in which we live our lives.  Integrity is when our ethics are proven by our morals - when what we say we believe is matched by how we live our lives.

I trust that I have lived with the integrity of an imperfect man before you.

In 12:4-5 we note the people’s response… The people confirm Samuel’s integrity and in addition Samuel calls on God to confirm his testimony.  We know that Samuel wasn’t a perfect man. But he had integrity, and I trust that this is true for you and me.

And now we want to consider that which undergirds Samuel’s faithfulness: God’s faithfulness!

4.      12:6-18 GOD’S FAITHFULNESS AND A CHALLENGE TO ISRAEL NOT TO BE UNFAITHFUL.

In this passage we hear overtones of Joshua. The closing words of both these leaders include a strong exhortation to the people to stay faithful. Their history shows,

(i)                 God’s covenantal faithfulness

(ii)                Israel’s frequent unfaithfulness

12:6-11 Samuel, by  means of a survey, from the Exodus from Egypt,  to Israel’s entrance into the promised land  shows them again and again how Israel fell into the routine  of slavery /idolatry and delivery as  God  delivered them both, up to their enemies, and  from  their enemies  by  sending  deliverers (Judges) time and again in response to the people’s desperate  prayers. The LORD sent Jerubbaal (Gideon) and Barak (Bedan[3]) and Jephthah and Samuel…, and you lived in safety (12:11). The point is that Israel was delivered time and again by God their King. The deliverers were God’s instruments. And yet despite God’s interventions, “they forgot the Lord their God” – breaking the first and most important requirement of the Sinai covenant(12:9; cf. Deut. 8:11).

But God did not forget Israel, nor His covenant with Israel. Even in the handing over of His people, God loved His people.

12:12 Israel’s unfaithful response to God: “And when you saw that Nahash the king of the Ammonites came against you, you said to me, 'No, but a king shall reign over us,' when the LORD your God was your king.  For Samuel this became the next level of rebellion against God! Israel  forgot that God their King had delivered them from the hand of the Philistines in 1Sam.7. They forgot their own history in the book of the Judges. They were determined to have a human king to reign over them. Samuel saw this as a betrayal, but God bore with His people’s  choice  and  said  in  12:13-14,  And now behold the king whom you have chosen, for whom you have asked; behold, the LORD has set a king over you. 14 If you will fear the LORD and serve him and obey his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the LORD, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the LORD your God, it will be well.   There are 4 conditions, 3 positive and 1 negative - fear God, serve God, obey God, and do not rebel against God. All would be well if king and people hold on to God.  If not – see 12:15.

Moses had warned the first generation of Israel who had been delivered from bondage in Egypt - “But it shall come about, if you do not obey the LORD your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you (Deut.28:16-68). Joshua gave a similar warning to the second generation who had entered the promised land - “If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you after He has done good to you.” (Josh 24:20ff).

Eastside Baptist Church , I can only say this to you: Keep your hearts attached to the King of the church. Love Him, serve Him. Worship Him. Don’t substitute anything or anyone for Christ. Learn from Samuel. Learn from the failures of Israel, and learn from the failures of the church. Paul rebuked the Corinthian Christians for being man-centred (1Cor. 1:11-13). Focus sharply on the Lord Jesus. Keep your soul under His word, and hold your leaders accountable to preach the Word to you. In that process, keep your Sundays for God, pray always, and expect God to work and to authenticate Himself (12:16-18).  Samuel is telling Israel to prepare themselves to see a sign from the LORD, which would authenticate the warning he had just given them. Rain during the wheat harvest (late May to early June) was unusual, and yet the Lord sent the rain and thunder to authenticate Samuel's words to the people. The mark of a true prophet in the biblical sense of that word is seen in God’s authentication of his words.

12:19 Seeing this authentication of Samuel’s words, the people suddenly realise that their asking for a human king was a great sin against God. In that sense, their response is good, because it amounts to a confession of their sin. Again one is reminded of the spiritual depth of Samuel’s ministry. His ministry was rooted in a sincere and consistent prayer life. This fact was clearly recognized by the people in 1 Sam 12:19. Samuel’s prayer footprint is clearly seen in 1 Sam.12:23; cf. 1 Sam.7:5ff; 1 Sam 8:6ff. Samuel did not consider prayer an option to be exercised at convenient moments. It was essential and integral to His ministry. While I am no Samuel, I have been in prayer for you, and I have regularly called you to be faithful in prayer. 

5.      12:20-25  A REVELATION OF  SAMUEL’S PASTORAL HEART

As people  see and process  the reality of Samuel’s pastoral ministry to them  we find  that…

(i)                 Samuel calms their fear. They are not in danger of imminent destruction (12:20a).  

(ii)               Samuel does not gloss over their sin. What they had done was serious (12:20b)

(iii)             Samuel warns them not to turn aside from God's commandments (12:21a). The best preventative to keep from turning aside is to serve the LORD with all your heart.

(iv)              He tells them not  to trust in empty things that cannot deliver (12:21b)  

(v)                He tells them  that God will not forsake His people (12:22)

(vi)              He  assures them of his ongoing personal prayer for them (12:23)

(vii)            He exhorts them again to cling to God with all their hearts (22:24).

(viii)          He warns them again (12:25).

These are the marks of a biblical ministry. I trust that you have had a taste of this. 

The ministry that you will most benefit from is a ministry that speaks for God and which loves people. In that order, and never the other way around!

My greatest duty has been to lead you into the arms of the Great Shepherd.



[1] Behold, ( Heb. hinneh;  Gr. LXX idou = aorist imperative)

[2] Mark 10:42-45; Matt 20:25-28 ;  John 13:12-17 ; Phil. 2:5-8

[3] Bedan is not mentioned in the book of Judges, suggesting the possibility there were other judges in that 300 year period. There is another possibility that this was a copyist's error because the Septuagint and Arabic versions both have the name for Barak (Jud. 4) cf. ESV and NIV versions.  Samuel is the last judge. God used him to deliver Israel so that "the Philistines were subdued and they did not come anymore within the border of Israel. And the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel." (1Sam. 7:13ff).

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

FAREWELL SERMON #1: JOSHUA 23&24

 


And so it is that we must start the process of saying goodbye to this season of ministry - a 34 year ministry at our beloved Eastside Baptist Church.

Truly, this time has gone by, “as a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). We are setting apart 3 Sundays, and with the help of some of the farewell speeches of Scripture, I wish to share some concluding reflections with you. 

Everything under the sun has a starting point and a termination date. Joshua started to lead Israel after the death of Moses (Joshua 1) and here in the 23rd and 24th chapter, Joshua   shares his final words with Israel.  I was called to the pastoral ministry in January 1990, although I was also a founding church member with the group that started this congregation in the June of 1985. God willing, I will complete my labours on the 31st December of this year, when many of you will be on your well- deserved holidays.  

Marcelle and I are not yet sure what the future holds for us in terms of further usefulness, but we do know who holds the future. We plan to have a time of rest, reflection and prayer, asking the Lord where we could serve Him, in keeping with our age related capabilities. We were deliberate in not making any plans, because we did not want to be doubleminded. It was really important to us to serve God and you with an undivided heart until the very end.

We know that God will provide for the years that are left for us on earth. So when people say, “We hear that Joachim and Marcelle are retired now” tell them, “You heard that wrong. They are not retiring. They are waiting on new orders.  But Joachim needs to let go of Eastside. A new team must now lead this work forward.” We shall stay in touch and visit from time to time as wisdom dictates and as the Lord allows.  I will no longer be your pastor or church elder, but Marcelle and I will always be your brother and sister in Christ.  And so I wish  to use the closing words of  Joshua, Samuel and Paul, by which  I reflect  with you  on  this  ministry.

Today we begin with Joshua:

23:1-5A long time afterward, when the LORD had given rest to Israel from all their surrounding enemies, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years, Joshua summoned all Israel, its elders and heads, its judges and officers and said to them… you have seen all that the LORD your God has done…”.

Recognising that Joshua’s times and situations were unique and unrepeatable, I want to be quick to point out that I am not Joshua and you are not Israel, and the situation here is quite unique. Nevertheless, life lived under the sun repeats itself in various familiar  forms, and for this reason also “the Scriptures  are profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness…” (2 Tim 3:16). We find common ground in the farewell words of our biblical ancestors.

Under  the leadership  of Joshua, and by God’s grace, Israel, after many battles fought and won finally came to rest in the promised land – the very land that today is in the news and once again the focus point of so much trouble and conflict. 

Eastside Baptist church had a beginning. She was solemnly constituted to the glory of God on the 16th of June 1985, by 21 members. Our founding pastoral couple were Charles[1] and Betty Whitson[2]. They served you until December 1989. A piece of land was secured and building commenced in 1987. This is the property from which we have conducted our work for nearly 40 years[3].  Marcelle and I started in January of 1990, three months before Namibia became an independent nation. This church has now become a settled congregation in the city. Many battles needed to be fought in that process. The sworn enemy of the church, the devil, has tried his utmost to discourage us and hinder us, time and again.  We started as a young and immature church, with very little structure and with  no elders. We were certainly  very vulnerable, and I myself was a rookie pastor, 32 years old, when I started.

23:6-13 The Fight of Faith

“Therefore be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, that you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods or swear by them or bow down to them, but you shall cling to the LORD your God...” (23:6-8)

As he was prepared to hand over the leadership, Joshua’s main concern was that Israel needed to continue in the strong convictions that first moved him – see Joshua 1:6-9. Israel was called by Joshua to resist any form of idolatry and spiritual compromise by holding on  to the Word of God (23:6) and to  love the Lord their God (23:11). The surrounding nations and their worship of idols –  their false gods were Israel’s  greatest challenge. If they would bring the outside world into their midst (mostly by marriage) that would become “a snare and a trap… a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes…” (23:13).

Eastside was born in a time of spiritual and political trouble, and much can be said about that. Some Namibian Churches of various denominations were becoming political platforms in those pre-independence days. Other churches were embracing the Pentecostal/ Charismatic movement. Both, the political  and many of the charismatic  churches  essentially abandoned the authority of the Word of God. In due time these became man centered organizations, and with our own eyes we have seen the demise of many such churches in our own day. 

The overarching desire expressed by a group, meeting in Charles and Betty’s home in the early eighties was to have an evangelical church that was free from political agendas  and charismatic excesses and focused on God’s Word. 

That is easier said than done. The people that joined Eastside loved the idea of being part of a Bible based church, but many weren’t deeply rooted in the practises and disciplines of the Word of God, and some ultimately abandoned the Lord.  They loved the world more, and the apostle Paul tells us of such. [4]  Others persevered under the Word and were in due course established, and  they became co-labourers. Some are now with the Lord.

One of my key contributions to the spiritual battle here has been a  call to the reformation of the church  alongside a persistent call to true, consistent discipleship. I say this against the background that many in this wonderful country call themselves Christians. In reality few live like Christians. The greatest battles I have fought, is with our hearts and our wills – to take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). My regular anguish is best expressed by Paul in Galatians 4:19: “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you”.

23:14-16 Joshua’s Farewell; Reminder of God’s Faithfulness; Warning concerning Unfaithfulness

“And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things  that  the LORD your God promised concerning you…”. 

Joshua knows that he will not live forever and that the time has now come to hand over the baton to a new generation. But the big point here is that Joshua reminds the coming generation that God has always been faithful to His people. And he warns them that they must not be unfaithful to the LORD their God. Unfaithfulness has painful consequences.

24:1- 13 A Great Gathering and a History Lesson

“Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel… and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people…”.  

Joshua’s last words are now recorded in the 24th chapter. Everyone gathers – “all the tribes of Israel, the elders, the heads of families, the judges, the officers of Israel”. And Joshua speaks, “…Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel…”.

He reminds them of their history –  from  Terah, the father of Abraham,  who lived in Mesopotamia  to the present.

He reminds them of the fact  that it was God Himself who gave them   their ancestry (24:2-4), who brought them out of Egypt (24:6,7),  who gave them the promised land of  Canaan (24:8-13) – “a land  for which they had not laboured  and cities that you had not built… eating  fruit of vineyards and  olive orchards  that you did not plant…”.  

Eastside, remember that God has planted this church by the labours of others.  God, at the hand of this church has brought at least 2 generations through many troubles, trials and tests. Great battles have been fought to preserve the gospel – more than you can know or appreciate. God has given us rest (23:1), and now you are currently privileged to enjoy the fruit of that labour.  Most of you have not sweated and toiled for what you now have. Don’t take that for granted. Don’t despise that.

Be careful and thankful and continue to build on this foundation for future generations. Remember too that a Christ centred, Word based, Evangelical church is a thorn in Satan’s side. Don’t presume on this present peace. You must continue the fight of faith. You must continue to cling to God and His Word alone. Two key activities must define you: Prayer and Proclamation!  Whatever else you do must flow from that!

24:14 – 28 A FINAL CHALLENGE

“Fear the LORD and serve Him in sincerity and in faithfulness…”… “put away the gods that your fathers served…”…”choose this day whom you will serve…”.  

Joshua’s final reminder is a repeat of what has been said so often in Israel – Fear the LORD! “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 1:7). So make up your minds where you want to be. Do not have your heads here with God and your hearts there with your idols. Serve and love the LORD your God with your whole mind and heart and soul and strength.

The people answer Joshua, and they say,  “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods…”(24:16). Joshua, a seasoned and experienced man knows that his people are quick to speak and slow to deal with the problem of heart idolatry. Therefore he says, “You are not able to serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God…” (24:19).

Many people think that being a Christian is easy. Well it is and it isn’t. It is easy when you understand that your salvation is based on holding on to Christ ALONE. But do you hold on to Jesus alone? What else are you clinging to? If we love idols more than our Lord Jesus then we have no certainty that we are actually Christians in the first place.   

But Joshua’s people insist that they will cling to God, and quite rightly therefore Joshua takes them seriously, by renewing the covenant with them, recording all that they have said. If they will not cling to God, the stones will cry out as a testimony against them (24:27).   I together with our past and present elders have been responsible to attach your hearts to God in our generation.

Will you in turn continue to be faithful to God? 

Will you, the next generation of elders and leaders, be faithful to God and your people? 

In Joshua  24:31 we read, 

“Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived  Joshua and  had known all the work that the LORD did  for Israel.”  

Thank God that Joshua’s legacy lasted for a while, but we also know that the book of Judges follows,  and with it a most disturbing text in Judges 2:11.   But we do not need to repeat history if we cling to Joshua 23:6, by which we are kept from sin, for as Dwight Moody  rightly said, ”This book  will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from this book”.



[1] Charles  Whitson: 3rd April 1927- 9th December 2012;  "The LaFayette Sun" - December 12, 2012 writes,

Rev. Charles Whitson, 85, of LaFayette (Hamburg Community), died Sunday, December 9, 2012, at Bethany House in Opelika.  Funeral services were held Wednesday, December 12, at Rock Springs Baptist Church at 1 p.m. with Rev. Hudson Whitson officiating. Burial followed in the church cemetery.

[2] Betty Whitson:  23rd May  1933 -  9th July 2017;  84 years old;  died at the Dadeville Health Care Center in Dadeville, Alabama. Funeral services were held Wednesday July 12, 2017 at 11 AM at the Rock Springs Baptist Church with burial in the church cemetery, with the Rev. James Caulfield officiating.  She was a member of the Rock Springs Baptist Church, and she and her husband served as Missionaries to Africa (Namibia) for 25 years.

[3] On the 16th June 2025  Eastside Baptist Church  will celebrate her 40th year of existence.

[4]  E.g.  Phygelus and Hermogenes ( 2 Tim 1:15); Hymenaus  and  Philetus (1 Tim 2:17) ; Demas (2 Tim 4:9); Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim 4:14)

Monday, October 30, 2023

Romans 1:16,17 DO WE NEED ANOTHER REFORMATION?

 


The world changed on October 31, 1517.  Martin Luther[1], a Roman Catholic monk and a teacher at an Augustinian seminary had had enough.  He was greatly disturbed by the sale of indulgences. Let me explain.   

A Catholic bishop, Albert of Mainz (1490 – 1545) was the overseer of two bishoprics, but he wanted even more power and influence. He desired an additional archbishopric over Mainz. At that time the practise of buying of such bishoprics[2] was the done thing. It was actually against church law to have more than one bishopric, but money talks. And greedy pope Leo X (who needed money to build St. Peter’s basilica in Rome) allowed him to do this against the payment of a huge sum. Albert borrowed the money from a wealthy man[3].  He obtained the electorate of Mainz in 1514.  But how was he going to pay back for this?  He procured the services of a Dominican monk, Johan Tetzel, who was known for granting indulgences on behalf of the Catholic Church in exchange for money. Indulgences were guarantees underwritten by the pope that sins committed could be forgiven by means of a payment into the church coffers.  This spiritual abuse made Martin Luther angry. He had to speak out, and so he took his pen and began to write his famous 95 theses. He posted them on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. The theses or protests  were designed to spark a debate,   but it did far more. It started a huge fire in the church, community and country, and soon it spilled over into other countries around Germany. The corruption of the church had been named and exposed for what it was. The common people saw that clearly. And the 95 Theses revealed that the church was corrupt, greedy and in dire need of a thorough going reformation.  

The 62nd Thesis of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses powerfully declares, “The Church’s true treasure is the gospel of Jesus Christ.”  The Roman church of Luther’s day had lost sight of the gospel of Jesus. Just as in the days of Jesus and the Pharisees, the Catholic church of Luther’s day had obscured and replaced the simple gospel of Jesus with manmade traditions and a system of self-righteous works and performance. I remind you that the Gospel does not focus on performance, but on reliance in Jesus ALONE. The gospel teaches us to rest in Jesus and His work of the cross.

Reformation Day celebrates the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ plus nothing is everything! The 1517 event set off a spark which ignited the hearts of many – men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Menno Simmons, John Knox, and so many other preachers. They were  like matches that ignited  the thirsty souls of the people  who  had  for so long walked in darkness – a repeat of Isaiah 9:2:  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. They directed the people’s attention to the gospel of Jesus. They showed their people that what they needed most was the gospel of Jesus. They needed that great Word from the true Shepherd more than they needed words of popes, bishops and  priests.  

The Reformation started a gospel preaching, missionary movement which spread like wildfire. It brought renewal to the church. The church started singing songs of praise to God. Luther loved singing. He taught the church to sing. New hymns were written.  Sermons were preached from the Bible and in the language of the people. People were converted, changed and renewed by the Word of God.   We celebrate Reformation Day,  even 506 years  later. We remember the  day  the gospel was given back to the church, after many years of darkness, in  a similar way in which the Jews celebrate  Hanukkah[4] (Festival of lights),  commemorating the recovery of Jerusalem and subsequent rededication of the Second Temple at the beginning of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire in the 2nd century BC.

Martin Luther’s Conversion

Luther’s encounter with the gospel was a journey – like yours and mine! The actual date of Martin Luther's conversion is disputed. Some think that it is before the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses. It seems more likely however, that Luther’s conversion happened in 1519. In reading the Ninety-Five Theses, it is clear that Luther still held on to a number of formative Roman Catholic doctrines. At that point, he tried to correct the church from the corruptions.  But Luther’s own testimony tells us that his conversion happened while he was lecturing through the Psalms a second time in the early months of 1519.  Shortly before his death, Luther reflected on his conversion,  and  in 1545 he said this:  

“Meanwhile, I had already during that year returned to interpret the Psalter anew. I had confidence in the fact that I was more skilful, after I had lectured in the university on St. Paul’s epistles to the Romans, to the Galatians, and the one to the Hebrews. I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardour for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans…  a single word in (Romans)  Chapter 1, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed”… had stood in my way. For I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they call it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly… I was angry with God, and said, As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.

Nevertheless, I … most ardently desired to know what St. Paul wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me….Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.

Romans 1:16,17

This is the text that finally settled it for Luther. A little background to the letter is needed. Paul writes this letter to the Romans, probably from Corinth. When he wrote this letter he believed that he had fulfilled his ministry in the eastern Mediterranean region (15:17-23). From there he had hoped to go west, even as far as Spain (15:24), and he hoped to visit the Roman Christians (1:10), whose faith was reported upon (1:8), fulfilling a promise to them, and perhaps to solicit their help as a supporting church (15:24). The Roman church was probably born as a result of Pentecost, when Jews were present at the feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:10). There the Holy Spirit touched the lives of many, and subsequently the many returned back to their homes carrying the good news of the gospel with them, giving rise to gospel communities – churches, everywhere as they went. Within a few hundred years (and after much suffering) the Christian gospel would conquer the Roman empire and Europe, and the east, and North Africa. These early Christians were the matches that the Holy Spirit used to light fires everywhere. The gospel was the fuel which they carried. The gospel is God’s solution to save the world from itself, and most of all, to save it from His terrible wrath (see Romans 1:18ff). Pray now that the gospel will save the world of our day as our world currently heads into big trouble. There is no healing in sight for the many angry nations now at each other’s throats.   Our world has no power whatsoever to save itself. The world needs real salvation, and the gospel of God is given ALONE to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of Jesus’s Name among all the nations (1:5). That  was Paul’s mission – the gospel for  a perishing  world: “I am  under obligation to both Greeks and to Barbarians…”  (1:14). Paul’s great confidence for the world is the gospel of God (1:1,15,16). Is it your confidence, or are you still thinking that we can fix this world simply through politics and diplomacy, through education and replacing  Christianity with  all sorts of cheap  and useless philosophies? Let me ask again? How was the world changed in Paul’s day? How does the gospel work to change society? How did it change Luther and Germany and so many other nations? Look at 1:16,17

Paul says, “for I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also to the Greek”… and then he gives the punch line, “For in it (i.e. the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written (in Hab.2:4),  ‘The righteous shall live by faith’”.

What is it in the gospel that makes the difference in the world? It is the righteousness of God. Luther struggled with this, because he constantly thought of self - righteousness, when in truth that thought is furthest here. He hated God, because He knew that in himself he could not attain to that standard. But Paul speaks here not of self- righteousness as a means  for being justified  before God. No! He speaks  of an alien righteousness, a righteousness imputed or given from the outside.  It is the righteousness of God, freely given to sinners who believe  on the merits of  the death of His Son who died for sin, so that whoever looks to Him is not condemned (i.e. is justified). By this righteousness imputed, I am counted righteous and I receive the power to be righteous.  It is THAT which Martin Luther finally understood , and this changed EVERYTHING. This is the Gospel!

How do I receive that righteousness? Answer: By faith. What is faith? Faith is believing the gospel of God! That means that you believe and receive  all that is there in the gospel for you: Jesus  died for your sin and He exchanges His  righteous life for your unrighteousness.  DO YOU BELIEVE THAT? When you stop trusting in yourself , stop looking at yourself , and when you look to Jesus and all that He is for you, then the Holy Spirit  does that great work  which happened at Pentecost  in a large scale , and again at the Reformation. 

Do we need another Reformation?   Don’t you see that what our churches and our world lack  most at this time  is that God centred perspective? We are  all so focussed on human solutions. We are caught up in secular philosophical thought systems that contradict and deny the power of the gospel. Repentance and believing the gospel is the ONLY cure for the world. Right now we need fundamental change within  and the gospel of Jesus alone contains the cure for that.   If not, we will soon destroy ourselves in this generation.

The church must not forget the lessons learned during the Reformation. We cannot forget what happens when the gospel is obscured and distorted and replaced by false cures procured from the devil’s medicine box. We need a new Reformation because everything else has failed and is failing. Humanism and its allies are bankrupt. We need God's help to reform our world again! We need Holy Spirit anointed preachers that radically believe in God and His word and preach it fearlessly and care little for public opinion. We need the truth as it is in Jesus. May God have mercy on us!

 



[1] Martin Luther :  10 November 1483  – 18 February 1546

[2] Simony  is the act of selling church offices and sacred things. It is named after Simon Magus, who is described in the Acts of the Apostles as having offered two disciples of Jesus payment in exchange for their empowering him to impart the power of the Holy Spirit to anyone on whom he would place his hands. The term extends to other forms of trafficking for money in "spiritual things”

[3] Jacob Fugger -  a major German merchant, mining entrepreneur, and banker.

[4] Occurs roughly around the same time as Christmas

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