2017 is an important year in the life of the church as we celebrate and remember the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that was sparked by Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Castle in Wittenberg, Germany. To remember the Reformation and the events that took place, I am planning on reading several books that highlight the life of Martin Luther, Reformation theology, and the "Five Solas." Here are five I'm planning to dive into in 2017:
1. Luther on the Christian Life
2. Why the Reformation Still Matters
3. The Unfinished Reformation
4. The Legacy of Luther
5. Rescuing the Gospel
I recently started reading an excerpt from a letter Dr. J.W. Alexander wrote to young ministers in the early 1800's. The letter was based solely on the topic, 'Ministerial Study.' In the letter Dr. Alexander pleas with ministers of the Gospel to "observe that the ministerial learning which I am recommending is solely the discipline and accomplishment whereby you shall be better fitted for your work." He exhorts them to "regard your mental powers as given you to be kept in continual working order, and continual improvement, and this with reference to the work of preaching and teaching." His honest and firm encouragement and exhortation is founded upon a central thought that was swirling in his head that life is short. Or as he puts it, "The day is near when you whole ministerial life will seem to you very short in retrospect." As the letter continues, he offers five tips for teachers of the Bible to consider when thinking about studying and learning.
1. Love the Bible.
He reminds his readers that all learning should be for one purpose: a deeper love and understanding of the Bible. "All your discipline and your acquisition are only so many means for learning God's Word, and for teaching it." Great teachers and preachers of the Bible keep their eyes in books and their hearts in the Bible. In other words, study and learn from many books, but set your heart on the Bible. Read the your Bible and read other books for the sake of knowing the Bible better. How do you do this practically? Alexander say, "devote the first and last part of every day to the persual of the Bible." Begin and end everyday with the Bible.
2. Don't Waste Time On Other Things.
"Be determined to be ignorant of many things in which men take pride." Ask yourself the question, what is robbing me of time throughout my day? For Alexander, it was bad literature. For us, it might be social media, technology, or other things. Find what is robbing you of time and "disregard the perishing nothings of the hour."
3. Don't Take Shortcuts.
"Observe the evils which attend the lack of thorough preparation." Don't rely on your giftedness to preach or teach. Prepare. Do the hard work of study. Set a time everyday to read a book, even if for five minutes. Alexander exhorts, "If he (the teacher or preacher) has begun this slovenly way while still young, and before he has laid up stores of knowledge, he will, in nine cases out of ten, be a shallow, rambling sermonizer as long as he lives." Study the Bible, read books. Learn.
4. Have a Place to Study.
Alexander argues that having a place to study and "labor" as he puts it, is a great benefit to the teacher or preacher. "A prevalent sense of this will do more than anything to procure and redeem time for research, and will cause you to learn more in an hour, than otherwise in a day." For some, that means having an office space. For others, it means having a chair or favorite coffee shop to sit at. Either way, have a place to study and learn.
5. Plan to Study.
Alexander suggests, "Propose questions to yourself: what part of the week do I devote to study? What head of theology has lately been under investigation? What is my plan of study for the coming day?" In asking these questions, you are intentionally setting in your mind the intent and sim to study. Do you set aside time to read and learn every week? Is there a time that you can use or redeem to labor in study?
Alexander ends his letter by saying, "Tell me how you spend your time in your early ministry, and I shall be better able to predict how you preach (or teach)." In other words, if you are not investing your life in pursuing more knowledge of the Bible and the world around you, don't expect to grow in your ability to preach and teach. Study hard and aim to learn everyday.
Recently my wife and I had our bank accounts hacked into by someone pretending to be me. Obviously the situation was scary, frustrating, and upsetting. Why? Because my identity, my wife's identity, and your identity are unique to who we are. When someone steals your identity, they are stealing something that is unique to you and you alone because your identity is the makeup of who you are. For Christians, our identity is no longer in who we are but in who Christ is (John 1:12). Because of the person and work of Jesus Christ, we place our faith in Him and are called "the children of God." This means that we are all that God says we are. What a wonderful reality!
However, we are constantly in an identity crisis. Like a thief trying to steal another's identity, we can try to find our identity in someone other than Christ. How can you know if you are in an identity crisis? Here are three warning signs:
1. You Determine your value and worth on someone else's thoughts and actions.
One of the sure fire ways to find out if you are in an identity crisis is when you begin determine your worth by looking to what someone else thinks or says about you. This is subtle. We don't wake up in the morning and think, 'I wonder what so-and-so thinks about me today.' Instead, we live in such a way that we are fearful of upsetting others because we want them to carry an honorable opinion of us. When we sin, instead of pursuing a person to confess and find help, you hide your sin because you are afraid of them having a low view of you. Are you finding your worth in what other's think about you?
For Christians, our identity is no longer in who we are but in who Christ is (John 1:12).
2. You Seek to Find in someone else what you can only find in God.
God has given His people the gift of community. We can find comfort, help, and encouragement in other believers (2 Cor. 1, Eph. 4:29-30). However, this is merely to be an aid in our sanctification process. The moment you try to find all of your comfort, joy, peace, and love in a person is a sure sign that you have an identity crisis. Are you looking for someone else to give you what only God can give you?
3. Your greatest hopes and desires are found in a person, not god.
God, by His grace, saves us and gives us new desires in our hearts to seek Him and do His will (see Psalm 37). The problem is that we often drift into placing our greatest desires and hopes in people. We desire someone so much that if they were taken from us or we can't have a relationship with them like we had hoped, we despair and turn away from God. We place our hope in someone so that when they fail us or sin against us, we are in utter agony and subtly drift away from God. Are you placing your hope and desires in another person?
The moment you try to find all of your comfort, joy, peace, and love in a person is a sure sign that you have an identity crisis.
Here is the truth: we are often guilty of identity theft. We attempt to take someone else's identity and try to function through it. But the reality of the gospel is that Christ has bought us with His own blood so that, by His grace, we might be called the children of God. And that, my friends, is an identity that brings the greatest comfort, rest, and joy that can be had.
Perhaps you've heard the old adage, "The grass isn't greener on the other side." The point is that things aren't always better somewhere else compared to where you are currently at. I have found that this is true in regards to church.
Many in the church today seem to point a finger at all that is 'wrong' but fail to recognize their own contribution to that wrong (we are all guilty). In fact, I think church members (me included) need to be reminded on a daily basis that the reason their church isn't perfect is because of two reasons:
1. You Go There.
How easy it is to functionally forget this! I say 'functionally' because I think every Christian theologically believes they are a sinner (or at least they should!). Yet, in the moments when we see shortcomings in the church and in the lives of other people, we become theological amnesiacs. We forget what we believe! Self-righteous people have their Ph.D in this. They are quick to point their fingers at others while forgetting what they themselves contribute to the problem! See, self-righteousness begins when we think that the sin outside of us is greater than the sin inside of us. We are all guilty of this and we need to constantly be reminded that our churches are not perfect because we attend!
Self-righteousness begins when we think that the sin outside of us is greater than the sin inside of us.
2. People Like You Go There.
Your church isn't perfect because people just like you attend there: sinners in need of grace. But yet, how easy it is to view others as problems instead of as sinners in need of grace. That problem woman in the church who always gossips can be viewed as a mere problem instead of as a fellow image bearer in desperate need of grace just like you and me. The hyper-critical man who always critiques everything can be viewed as a cancer of the church when in reality he is just a fallen man in need of the rescuing grace of God. Friends, we would do well to remind ourselves that we are not much different from those we look down upon. We are sinners in need of grace who make up an imperfect church. But praise be to God that He readily offers grace to undeserving sinners like you and me.
We would do well to remind ourselves that we are not much different from those we look down upon.
"And it is devastating because no human being can see this glory (God's glory) without God's help. This is not because we are helpless victims of blindness but because we are lovers of blindness. "This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil" (John 3:19). We are not chained in a dark cell, longing to see the sunshine of God's glory. We love the cell, because sin and Satan have deceived us into seeing the drawings on the wall as the true glory and the source of greatest pleasure. Our prison cell of darkness is not the bondage of external constraint but of internal preference. We have exchanged the glory of God for images (Rom. 1:23). We love them. That is our blindness."
-John Piper, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness (page 16).
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Have you ever considered that everyone around you hopes for something? People in difficult circumstances hope their circumstances will change. Farmers hope that the bad weather will hold off. Sports fans hope their favorite team will win the upcoming game. To be human is to hope.
So here is the question: what makes the hope that Christians have in the Gospel so different from that of unbelievers? In order to answer this question, we must make an important distinction between hope and hope in God.
Hope is a wish for change. The hope that all people have is simply a wish for things to change. It's a hope that is derived from a wish that the current circumstances will change, that a desired outcome will come about, or that a specific need is met. This is a hope that is founded in mid-air in the sense that it is void of any assurance. You can hope that things will get better, but have no assurance that things will get better.
2. Hope In God
Hope in God is a confident assurance of future redemption. In other words, it is a hope that stands confident in knowing that things will not always be how they now appear. A Christian with cancer can confidently say, with joy, "I won't always suffer." Hope in God is sure, steady, and assured. This is why Christians that suffer stand in such contrast with unbelievers who suffer. Christians can say with Jesus, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matt. 5:4) while unbelievers can only hope their current circumstance will pass while eternal condemnation still awaits after death.
Hope in God is a confident assurance of future redemption.
Because of the Gospel. Because Christ took the penalty of sin and offers salvation to those who repent of their sins and trust Christ by faith, hope in God is possible. For the unbeliever, mere hope in this life is all there is. While for the believer, hope in God holds them like an anchor in the mercy and grace of God. Knowing that while things are bad now, the best is truly yet to come.
I am a Husband to Clarissa, Lead Pastor Resident at College Park Church in Indianapolis, 'Tweeter' at @brad_merchant, and avid reader of books.