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Here is a helpful article on the not-so-good direction modern is going in.

~ Bryan

Nine Reasons People Aren’t Singing in Worship

Worship leaders around the world are sadly changing their church’s worship (often unintentionally) into a spectator event. Before discussing our present situation, let’s look back into history.

Prior to the Reformation, worship was largely done for the people. The music was performed by professional musicians and sung in an unfamiliar language (Latin).

The Reformation gave worship back to the people. This including congregational singing. It employed simple, attainable tunes with solid, scriptural lyrics in the language of the people.

Worship once again became participatory. The evolution of the printed hymnal brought with it an explosion of congregational singing and the church’s love for singing increased.

Then came the advent of new video technologies. Churches began to project the lyrics of their songs on a screen. The number of songs at a church’s disposal increased exponentially.

[1] At first, this advance in technology led to more powerful congregational singing, but soon, a shift in worship leadership began to move the congregation back to pre-Reformation pew potatoes (spectators).

What has occurred could be summed up as the re-professionalization of church music and the loss of a key goal of worship leading—enabling the people to sing their praises to God.

Simply put, we are breeding a culture of spectators in our churches. We are changing what should be a participative worship environment to a concert event. Worship is moving to its pre-Reformation mess.

9 reasons people are not singing any more.

  1. They don’t know the songs.

    With the release of new songs weekly and the increased birthing of locally-written songs, worship leaders are providing a steady diet of the latest, greatest worship songs. Indeed, we should be singing new songs. But too high a rate of new song inclusion in worship can kill our participation rate and turn the congregation into spectators. I see this all the time. I advocate doing no more than one new song in a worship service, and then repeating the song on and off for several weeks until it becomes known by the congregation. People worship best with songs they know, so we need to teach and reinforce the new expressions of worship. (more)

  2. We are singing songs not suitable for congregational singing.

    There are lots of great, new worship songs today, but in the vast pool of new songs, many are not suitable for congregational singing by virtue of their rhythms (too difficult for the average singer) or too wide of a range (consider the average singer—not the vocal superstar on stage).

  3. We are singing in keys too high for the average singer.

    The people we are leading in worship generally have a limited range and do not have a high range. When we pitch songs in keys that are too high, the congregation will stop singing, tire out and eventually quit, becoming spectators. Remember that our responsibility is to enable the congregation to sing their praises, not to showcase our great platform voices by pitching songs in our power ranges. The basic range of the average singer is an octave and a fourth from A to D (more).

  4. The congregation can’t hear people around them singing.

    If our music is too loud for people to hear each other singing, it is too loud. Conversely, if the music is too quiet, generally, the congregation will fail to sing out with power. Find the right balance—strong, but not over-bearing.

  5. We have created worship services which are spectator events, building a performance environment.

    I am a strong advocate of setting a great environment for worship including lighting, visuals, inclusion of the arts and much more. However when our environments take things to a level that calls undue attention to those on stage or distracts from our worship of God, we have gone too far. Excellence—yes. Highly professional performance—no.

  6. The congregation feels they are not expected to sing.

    As worship leaders, we often get so involved in our professional production of worship that we fail to be authentic, invite the congregation into the journey of worship, and then do all we can to facilitate that experience in singing familiar songs, new songs introduced properly, and all sung in the proper congregational range. (more)

  7. We fail to have a common body of hymnody.

    With the availability of so many new songs, we often become haphazard in our worship planning, pulling songs from so many sources without reinforcing the songs and helping the congregation to take them on as a regular expression of their worship. In the old days, the hymnal was that repository. Today, we need to create song lists to use in planning our times of worship. (more)

  8. Worship leaders ad lib too much.

    Keep the melody clear and strong.

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If you’ve heard much about the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, you’ve probably heard the word hero.

Martin Luther, the hero of Wittenberg, who took his stand against corrupt priests, cardinals, and the pope himself. John Calvin, the hero of Geneva, who wrote the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ulrich Zwingli, the hero of Zurich, who outdebated the city’s Catholic leaders and persuaded the people to join the Reformation.

But anyone who knows the history well enough may balk at that word hero. The Reformers were not only courageous men and women who recovered the gospel, but also inconsistent men and women whose lives often betrayed the gospel. Consider some well-known examples from Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, the Reformation’s three brightest lights.

  • Luther repeatedly leveled vicious insults at his opponents, including Catholics, Jews, Anabaptists, and others. Although Luther attacked Jews primarily for theological rather than ethnic reasons, many have understandably accused him of anti-Semitism.
  • Calvin allowed Geneva’s city council to execute Michael Servetus, a heretic on the run from Roman Catholic authorities.
  • Zwingli, in similar fashion to Calvin, approved of the drowning of Felix Manz, one of his former students and a leader in the budding Anabaptist movement.

If you read biographies of the Reformation’s other leaders, you’ll find that many harbored character flaws as devastating as Luther’s, Calvin’s, and Zwingli’s. Each goes down in history with their own glaring asterisk. One might begin to wonder if we should celebrate these men and women at all.

The Right Kind of Celebration

But the difficulty is at least as old as the book of Hebrews. In Hebrews 11, the author celebrates a band of believers just as flawed as our Reformers. Consider Noah, who got drunk off his own vineyard and lay naked in his tent (Genesis 9:20–21). Or Moses, whose disobedience left him dead outside the promised land (Deuteronomy 34:4–5). Or David, who wielded his royal authority to commit adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11:1–27).

Somehow, the author of Hebrews gazed out across these walking contradictions and saw a group of heroes. I believe we can see the same in Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the rest of our Reformers. But in order to process their failures and praise their victories as we ought, we would do well to follow a three-step process: understand their context, name their sin, and celebrate their faith.

1. Understand Their Context

First, we should try to learn what we can about the figure’s historical context and the particular situations that provoked their sinful responses. As we do so, we are not looking to minimize, excuse, or explain away their sin; instead, we’re placing ourselves alongside them as fellow sinners and seeking to grasp why it happened. It’s remarkably easy to cast stones across the centuries before we’ve tried to travel there ourselves.

For example, let’s attempt to inhabit Geneva in 1553, the year Calvin approved of Servetus’s execution. For the last twelve centuries, the Church has locked hands with the state, a marriage that has made unorthodox beliefs a threat to both parties. Under this arrangement, Church and state authorities often did not merely excommunicate heretics; they executed them. Calvin breathed this political and ecclesial air his whole life.

Calvin, who knew Servetus and had labored to persuade him of orthodox theology, warned Servetus not to come to Geneva. When he came anyway, Catholic authorities had already condemned the man to be burned at the stake for heresy, a decision that placed Geneva in a corner. Historian Mark Talbot writes, “Not to execute Servetus, if he did not repent and retract his views, would make the Protestant territories seem dangerously soft both religiously and politically” (With Calvin in the Theater of God, 151).

We could say more, but from these facts alone, we should admit that the Servetus affair would look a little different to a sixteenth-century Genevan than it does to a twenty-first century American. If we faithfully uncover the historical context of our leaders’ sins, we will often be left saying, “That could have been me. I could have done that.”

2. Name Their Sin

None of this circumstantial information, however, removes the Reformers’ responsibility. And we don’t do anyone a favor by pretending that it does.

If we try to whitewash Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others, we hide a lesson all of us need to hear — namely, that Satan and our own hearts can deceive us so thoroughly that we cannot even see the ways our lives contradict our message. As John Piper writes in his short biography of Luther, “the devil is real and can trip a great man into graceless behavior, even as he recovers grace from centuries of obscurity” (Legacy of Sovereign Joy, 32). Studying the Reformers should humble us and send us searching for our own flaws that we fail to see — the sins that may scar history books written five centuries from now.

Even more importantly, when we downplay the Reformers’ flaws, we obscure the heart and soul of the Reformation itself. Even at their best, the Reformers were object lessons for the gospel they preached: Jesus came for failing, broken people. God does not search for beautiful people to save; instead, he searches for broken people to make beautiful through his Son, Jesus Christ (Matthew 9:13; Luke 19:10).

If the gospel is only for the beautiful, or only for saints who leap from peak to peak on their way to glory, then the gospel isn’t for you and me. A gospel that promises instant and total transformation is a sentimental lie, a rose hiding its thorn, a vain attempt to varnish the canvas of history and human hearts so we don’t look so desperately wicked. In other words, it’s no gospel at all.

To be sure, people who make a practice of sinning will not enter God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 John 3:8). But if we dig deeply enough into these Reformers’ historical context and personal lives, we will find (in most if not all cases) that they did not make a practice of high-handed sin. Their culture and times may have blinded them to their particular evils; rarely (if ever) did they walk in conscious, unrepentant rebellion.

The Reformation was never about a cast of holy characters, but instead about one holy Christ, the Son of God, whose suffering and resurrection fully cover his people’s sins — including the sins they commit when they should certainly know better. Jesus has washed our Reformers white with his own precious blood. You and I don’t have to.

3. Celebrate Their Faith

Now we’re in a position to celebrate these Reformers with our eyes wide open. We may have to denounce Luther’s runaway tongue. We may have to lament Calvin’s and Zwingli’s complicity with the state. But once we’ve done so, we can step back and recognize that these tangled men also modeled lives of spectacular faithfulness. And along with the author of Hebrews, we can celebrate the faith of God’s flawed heroes.

We can celebrate Luther’s faith in God’s word as he stood before the imperial assembly of the Holy Roman Empire and said, “My conscience is captive to the word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”

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Nuremberg, 1946

In 1946, Julius Streicher was on trial for his life. He had published the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer, and had been captured at the end of World War II. The Allies put him on trial alongside 23 other prominent Nazis at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. During the trial Streicher was asked: “Witness, what aims did you pursue with your speeches and your articles in Der Stürmer?” Streicher replied:

I did not intend to agitate or inflame but to enlighten. Anti-Semitic publications have existed in Germany for centuries. . . . In the book The Jews and Their Lies, Dr. Martin Luther writes that the Jews are a serpent’s brood and one should burn down their synagogues and destroy them. Dr. Martin Luther would very probably sit in my place in the defendants’ dock today, if this book had been taken into consideration by the Prosecution.

Streicher was a propagandist who devoted his life to spreading slander and falsehood, but on this occasion he was telling the truth.

Wittenburg, 1543

The book Streicher mentions, The Jews and Their Lies, was written by Luther in 1543, three years before his death. It was closely followed by another anti-Semitic treatise: Vom Schem Hamphoras (On the Ineffable Name). Oxford University historian Lyndal Roper summarizes the content of these two works in her recent highly acclaimed biography, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet [review]:

The Jews, he alleges, look for biblical truth “under the sow’s tail,” that is, their interpretation of the Bible comes from looking in a pig’s anus. . . . They defame Christian belief, “impelled by the Devil, to fall into this like filthy sows fall into the trough.” If they see a Jew, Christians should “throw sow dung at him . . . and chase him away.” Luther calls for the secular authorities to burn down all the synagogues and schools, and “what won’t burn should be covered over with earth, so that not a stone or piece of slag of it should be seen for all eternity.” The Jews’ houses should be destroyed and they should be put under one roof, like the gypsies. The Talmud and prayer books should be destroyed and Jewish teachers banned. They should be prevented from using the roads, usury banned, and the Jews forced to undertake physical labor instead. Assets from moneylending should be confiscated and used to support Jews who converted. This was a program of complete cultural eradication. And Luther meant it. . . .

Luther’s anti-Semitism then reached a crescendo of physical revulsion. He imagined Jews kissing and praying to the Devil’s excrement: “the Devil has emptied . . . his stomach again and again, that is a true relic, which the Jews, and those who want to be a Jew, kiss, eat, drink, and worship.” In a kind of inverted baptismal exorcism, the Devil fills the mouth, nose, and ears of the Jews with filth: “He stuffs and squirts them so full, that it overflows and swims out of every place, pure Devil’s filth, yes, it tastes so good to their hearts, and they guzzle it like sows.” Whipping himself into a frenzy, Luther invokes Judas, the ultimate Jew: “When Judas hanged himself, so that his guts ripped, and as happens to those who are hanged, his bladder burst, then the Jews had their golden cans and silver bowls ready, to catch the Judas piss (as one calls it) with the other relics, and afterwards together they ate the shit and drank, from which they got such sharp sight that they are able to see such complex glosses in Scripture.”

This summary provides only a sampling of Luther’s hate-filled vitriol. Multiple passages in his 1543 writings against the Jews are just as abhorrent.

America, 2017

October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. Exasperated by the widespread selling of indulgences—pardons for sin sold by the Roman Catholic church to fund clerical debt and architectural projects in Rome—Luther bravely declared that Christ’s merits are “freely available without the keys of the pope.” Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses set in motion the Europe-wide revival of biblical faith we call the Reformation. Luther has accordingly been the historical figure placed front and center in this year of commemoration known as Reformation 500.

As a Jewish believer in Jesus, however, Reformation 500 puts me in a strange position. Luther’s gospel service cannot be denied; I myself have benefited from it greatly. But his attitude toward my own race was one of unrestrained hostility. How should I think about such a man? To frame the question more broadly, how should Luther’s anti-Semitism affect his legacy?

I have three proposals.

1. Luther’s anti-Semitism should be acknowledged without qualification.

I’ve noticed a pattern when Christians address the subject of Luther’s hostility to the Jews. First there’s acknowledgement; then comes an attempt to dial down the awfulness and make it less troubling. The desire to defend Luther is understandable—we owe him so much. But the excuses don’t stand up to scrutiny.

For example, at one recent conference a speaker said this: “Luther was wrong . . . but this isn’t necessarily anti-Semitism. That’s really a 20th-century phenomenon. . . . It wasn’t an ethnic motivation that prompted Luther to this; it was a theological one.” You can almost hear the audience’s sigh of relief. But the notion that anti-Semitism is a modern phenomenon is a fallacy. Although the term itself is relatively recent (according to the Anti-Defamation League it was first used in 1873), the reality it describes dates back to the 5th century B.C., when Haman “sought to destroy the Jews” simply because they were “the people of Mordecai,” his enemy (Est. 3:6). Whenever Jews are singled out for hostile treatment, that behavior can rightly be described as anti-Semitism. In any case, there’s ample evidence that Luther’s theological opposition to Jews was paired with ethnic hatred. Why else would he repeatedly picture them smeared with pig manure? To take a people’s distinctive feature—in this case Jewish avoidance of pigs—and maliciously turn it against them is textbook racism.

Others attempt to defend Luther by stressing that in his younger days he had been much friendlier to Jewish people. In his 1523 tract, That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, he reminded readers that “the Jews are of the lineage of Christ” and called for better treatment of Jews than they’d received from the popes. While it’s true Luther wasn’t anti-Semitic throughout his life, it’s a serious mistake to make too much of the point. Imagine suffering vicious racial persecution. Would you gain any comfort from knowing your persecutor hadn’t always been a racist? What’s more, Luther’s friendliness to Jews in the early 1520s seems to have been predicated on the progress he expected them to make toward faith in Christ. So from the Jewish perspective, he wasn’t necessarily offering them safe harbor, come what may.

A third way people try to reduce the horror of Luther’s anti-Semitism is by presenting him as a person of his time, a fellow traveler in a generation given over to Jew-hatred. According to this argument, while Luther should be faulted for failing to overcome his culture, we shouldn’t be too quick to condemn, because every culture, including our own, has its blind spots. The problem with this argument is that Luther had in fact overcome his culture’s blind spots, at the time of the 1523 tract mentioned above. It’s like a white pastor in 1930s Mississippi calling for a radical easing of Jim Crow laws, only to double down on segregation two decades later. The one thing you couldn’t say in that pastor’s defense, given his earlier record, is that he simply went along with his generation’s blind spots.

I would advise anyone addressing Luther’s anti-Semitism to say it was evil, and the more closely you look at it, the worse it gets. Any temptation to sugarcoat this bitter pill should be resisted.

2. Luther’s anti-Semitism should—as far as possible—be understood.

The inevitable question raised by Luther’s anti-Semitism is how someone who did so much to glorify Jesus could disobey him so flagrantly in this area. The New Testament describes Jewish people who reject Jesus as “natural branches” broken off the “olive tree” of God’s people. It says to Gentiles, “Do not boast over those branches. . . . They were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. . . . And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (Rom. 11:18–23). Luther knew those verses. He translated each of those words from Greek into German! Why did he put them to one side, and others like them, in order to pour forth his white-hot hatred?

Our urge to understand shouldn’t lead us too quickly to rational explanations. Sin is profoundly irrational, as all of us know from our own hearts and actions. Explanations can easily morph into excuses like the ones discussed above. But insofar as they’re possible, explanations can help us avoid the same evils by revealing the missteps that take a person down dark paths.

Our urge to understand shouldn’t lead us too quickly to rational explanations. Sin is profoundly irrational, as all of us know from our own hearts and actions.

The main factor leading Luther toward anti-Semitism was his longing for a unified Protestant society. He wanted the “two kingdoms” of church and state to create a community that crushed or banished all threatening groups. In this way he sought a kind of Protestant medievalism. The theological changes he introduced were enough for him; in every other respect he wanted to preserve the medieval order.

So when the 1525 Peasants’ War threatened the medieval political settlement, Luther urged the German princes to “smite, slay, and stab.” When Anabaptists threatened Protestant unity, Luther and his colleague Philip Melanchthon accused them of sedition and blasphemy, and in a 1531 memorandum they argued such offences merited the death penalty. Luther’s comment on this action is telling: “Although it seems cruel to punish them with the sword, it is crueler that they condemn the ministry of the Word and have no well-grounded doctrine and suppress the truth and in this way seek to subvert the civil order.” Luther’s unwillingness to see the civil order subverted either politically or theologically meant he ran out of patience with the Jews and could no longer endure their presence in Protestant territory.

He felt he had a God-given right to live in a unified society in this world, and that error fueled his anti-Semitism. Surely there are lessons here for Christians in America today.

3. Luther’s anti-Semitism should harm his reputation.

The essence of the Reformation is that we’re saved not on the basis of our own deeds, but through faith in Jesus. That is why, in the brilliant novel The Hammer of God, a Lutheran pastor joyfully says, “I go about my duties as might a prison warden who carries a letter of pardon for all his criminals.” The pardon Jesus offers through his atoning death covers all our sins, even those as vile as Luther’s. To use Luther’s own formula, the believer is simul justus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and a sinner).

And yet Luther himself writes, in his 1520 tract The Freedom of a Christian, “The inner man, who by faith is created in the image of God, is both joyful and happy because of Christ in whom so many benefits are conferred upon him; and therefore it is his one occupation to serve God joyfully and without thought of gain, in love that is not constrained.” That is indeed the Bible’s vision for the Christian life (see Romans 6:15–23), and why we should particularly celebrate those Christians who, by the Spirit’s power, live out that vision most comprehensively.

With that in mind, it seems to me Luther is a man we should honor but not celebrate.

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by Timothy George

Editors’ note: Come celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with us at our 2017 National Conference, April 3 to 5 in Indianapolis. The theme is “No Other Gospel: Reformation 500 and Beyond.” Timothy George will be speaking on “Reformation Before the Reformers” and “Early Reformers: Why Didn’t They Unite?” in workshops. Space is filling up fast, so register soon. The following article originally appeared in First Things.

The preaching of the gospel as a sacramental event is at the heart of Reformation theology. Preaching is also at the heart of Reformation faith—preaching as an indispensable means of grace and a sure sign of the true church. Where is the church? According to Article VII of the Augsburg Confession (1530), the church is that place where the Word is purely preached and the sacraments are duly administered. The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) went even further when it declared that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”

Of course, preaching—unlike the printing press—was not a new invention of the Reformation era. Far from it. Think of Augustine and Chrysostom in the early church, Bernard of Clairvaux, John Hus, and the many mendicant friars who fanned out across Europe in the Middle Ages.

St. Francis preached the gospel to a Muslim sultan, and Savonarola declared God’s judgment on the sinful leaders of Florence. Bernardino of Siena, the great Franciscan herald, preached to throngs in the 15th century, calling on his listeners to repent, confess their sins, and go to Mass. The Protestant reformers knew this tradition and built on it, but they also transformed it in two important respects.

Central Act of Worship

First, they made the sermon the centerpiece of the church’s regular worship. Prior to the Reformation, the sermon was mostly an ad hoc event reserved for special occasions or seasons of the liturgical cycle, especially Christmas and Eastertide. Most sermons were preached in town squares or open fields. The reformers brought the sermon back inside the church and gave it an honored place in the public worship of the gathered community. The central role of preaching in Protestant worship can be seen in the way pulpits were raised to a higher elevation as families gathered with their children to hear the Word proclaimed.

Second, the reformers introduced a new theology of preaching. They were concerned that the Bible take deep root in the lives of the people. The Word of God was meant not only to be read, studied, translated, memorized, and meditated on; it was also to be embodied in the life and worship of the church. What might be called the practicing of the Bible—its embodiment—was most clearly expressed in the ministry of preaching. Martin Luther believed that a call to the preaching office was a sacred trust and shouldn’t be used for selfish purposes. “Christ did not establish the ministry of proclamation to provide us with money, property, popularity, honor, or friendship,” he said.

Luther

Preachers should be wary of listeners who are too complimentary, for flattery can have a sinister outcome. Puffed-up preachers are likely to think, This you have done; this is your work; you are a first-rate man, the real master. Such conceit is not even worth throwing to the dogs, Luther said. Faithful preachers should teach only God’s Word and seek only his praise. “Likewise, the hearers should also say: ‘I do not believe in my pastor, but he tells me of another Lord whose name is Christ; him he shows me.’”

Zwingli

Preaching was no less important in the Reformed tradition. When one visits the Great Minster Church in Zurich today, the following inscription can be read over the portal: “The Reformation of Huldrych Zwingli began here on January 1, 1519.” That date, no less than October 31, 1517, can answer the question, “When did the Reformation begin?”

For on that first day of January, which happened to be Zwingli’s birthday, the new pastor began his pulpit ministry by announcing his intention to dispense with the prescribed texts of the traditional lectionary. He would follow a new paradigm: preaching expositional sermons, chapter by chapter, starting with the Gospel of Matthew. After completing Matthew, Zwingli resumed the same lectio continua method by taking up Acts, then the letters to Timothy, Galatians, 1 and 2 Peter, Hebrews, the Gospel of John, and the other Pauline letters. He then turned to the Old Testament, beginning with the Psalms, then the Pentateuch and the historical books.

Bullinger

Heinrich Bullinger, who succeeded Zwingli as the Reformation leader in Zurich, reported “a rush of all sorts of people, in particular the common man, to these evangelical sermons of Zwingli’s, in which he praised God the Father, and taught all people to place their trust in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, as the single Savior.” One of those common people who rushed to hear Zwingli in the 1520s was a young student named Thomas Platter. He tells of hearing a sermon by Zwingli that was “expounded so powerfully that I felt as if someone was pulling me up by my hair.”

Calvin

From the pulpit of St. Pierre in Geneva, John Calvin followed the preaching pattern established by Zwingli. His pulpit work was marked by sequential, text-driven preaching. In the course of his ministry at Geneva, Calvin delivered more than 4,000 sermons, and many have survived for us to study.

What was the secret of Calvin’s preaching? Hughes Oliphant Old gave this answer:

Calvin drew out of the Scriptures aspects of Christian teaching which the church had not heard for centuries. This was above all the case for the doctrine of grace. The promise of salvation was presented to all who would believe it. Calvin preached justification by faith, as all the reformers did. More than some, perhaps, he also preached sanctification by faith. The lives of those who believed the Word of God would be transformed by that Word. Holiness was the fruit of faith. To believe the Word was to live by the Word, and that life lived according to the Word of God was blessed, both in this world and in the world to come.

Three Marks of Reformation Preaching

In an important essay published in Theology Today in 1961, Heiko A. Oberman set forth the distinctive marks of Reformation preaching in terms of three interrelated aspects.

1. The sermon is an apocalyptic event.

Not quite in the sense of Savonarola’s preaching of impending doom to the people of Florence, but in the sense that the sermon unveils and makes present the last judgment here and now. Without demythologizing Christ’s future coming, gospel preaching existentializes the final will of God for every hearer by calling for a decisive response here and now. “In the sermon,” Oberman observed, “Christ and the Devil are revealed, Creator and creature, love and wrath, essence and existence, ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’”

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God Has a People for His Name ukzp7g47

Noël and I recently returned from three weeks in Poland, Switzerland, and Italy, where my task in each setting was to give expositions of Scripture. Here are seven experiences that linger in our minds, and are bearing fruit for the way we do ministry.

1. Catholicism’s Shape and Shackles

The overwhelming common denominator of these three events was the challenge of heralding the gospel of Christ to minds and hearts shaped and shackled by centuries of religious and cultural Roman Catholicism. Yes, I do mean shackled.

  • Shackled by centuries of, first, forbidding (on threat of death in the sixteenth century) and, then, diminishing the reading of Scripture as dangerous to proper faith, and as subject to papal interpretation and accretion. I was told of an 80-year-old nun recently converted, who had never read the Gospel of John.
  • Shackled by a Roman Catholic conception of Christianity that leads people away from simple communion with God, through Christ and his word, into a thoroughgoing dependence on other mediators, including, Mary, the saints, the indulgences, the priest-enacted sacraments, and the all-encompassing structure of authority outside the Bible.
  • Shackled by a system of penance structured by papal rulings that burden the conscience of the ritual-driven penitent with places and times and events and structures for the temporary relief of guilt. For example, besides the usual necessity of the physical reception of grace through transubstantiated bread at the mass, and the temporary unburdening of sin at the priestly confessional, Pope Francis has declared this year a special jubilee year in which “indulgence is granted to the faithful.”

For example, his letter reads, “To experience and obtain the Indulgence, the faithful are called to make a brief pilgrimage to the Holy Door, open in every Cathedral or in the churches designated by the Diocesan Bishop, and in the four Papal Basilicas in Rome, as a sign of the deep desire for true conversion.”

The Reformation Is Not Over

Any thought that “the Reformation is over” is, it seems to me, provincial. It never came to Italy. It was muted by the peculiarly secular revolutionary spirit in France. And it was weakened in Eastern Europe by a strong Catholic counter-reformation.

God Has a People for His Name vm0ffwqp

Today, the great need is a robust, crystal clear, Spirit-anointed proclamation — in the churches, in the media, and one-to-one — of the gospel of justification by grace alone, on the basis of Christ alone, through faith alone, to the glory of God alone, as laid out with final authority in Scripture alone. Few things make the preciousness and power of these “alones” more clear than the religious situation in continental Europe today.

2. Gospel Movements Emerging

Every place I went I saw a growing, gospel-saturated movement of largely younger (but not only younger!) Europeans committed to church planting and aggressive evangelism and life-transforming Reformed theology. In France, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany, the influence of The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is discernible.

But in line with the stated intentions of TGC, there are no international “branches.” If there are to be international expressions of the theology and ministry-vison of TGC, they must be created, conceived, structured, and led indigenously. That is happening. And as far as I can see, this is owing to the Holy Spirit’s on-the-ground work, so that TGC is not the primary catalyst but rather a way of identifying one of God’s works in relation to the same divine work in other places.

God Has a People for His Name kk1idtt0

In particular, I saw some remarkable individual ministries and churches that reflect the energy and joy and seriousness of aggressive outreach. Nuova Vita is a church in Bologna, Italy, with significant outreaches to refugees and prostitutes (whom they call their “treasures”). Mark Brucato, a copastor at the church, told me one story of God’s amazing grace. One of the “treasures” came to Christ. Her most frequent “client,” instead of being alienated, also came to faith. They were both baptized and after coming out of the water, he proposed to her.

God is at work saving what we often look at as simply unsavable.

Not Every Challenge Ends with Transformation

One missionary pastor, who had been in France for thirty years, told me about a new challenge in his small church. A member of his church was studying sexuality in school, and came to the view that the Greek word porneia always means “prostitution,” rather than its usual meaning of “fornication.” This influential member was teaching, therefore, that the New Testament has nothing to say about whether an engaged couple can sleep together. Very practically he was opposing any attempt to do church discipline in such cases.

Such are the challenges in the ordinary life of a church planter in France.

3. Hope for Hopeless Collegiates

Bologna, Italy, has the oldest university in Europe, and evangelicals are reaching out to students.

The unemployment rate in Italy, I was told, of young people ages 18–38 is about 45%. This has produced a depressed and hopeless atmosphere among many students who see little future for all their university efforts. Some even deceive their parents, pretending to be in school, but actually using the money to pursue a life of fun until the time of expected graduation, and then, just when their parents would find out, they commit suicide.

Christ has hope for these students, because what he offers is so eternally valuable that neither poverty nor affliction can stop a new believer from overflowing with joy and generosity (2 Corinthians 8:1–2).

4. Two Surpises in Rome

We spent a whole day walking around the Colosseum and Roman Forum in the heart of Rome. Two things were new and surprising to me. One was the sheer size of the Colosseum. It simply was overwhelming for its greatness — especially its height — knowing that it was built in the first century without any modern machinery. These massive stones were set in perfect place — so that they are still holding 2,000 years later — without any cranes. It is the largest amphitheater ever built. Construction began under the emperor Vespasian in AD 72. It was completed in AD 80 under his successor and Titus.

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The other striking thing was realizing that the Colosseum was built with the spoils taken by Titus from the Jewish Wars in which the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. In AD 82, the Arch of Titus was built by Domitian to commemorate Titus’s victory in those wars. It is still standing. And as I stood there, I saw inside the arch the sculptures of the victory procession where the Jewish Menorah is clearly visible. “Along with the spoils, an estimated 100,000 Jewish prisoners were brought back to Rome after the war, and many contributed to the massive workforce needed for construction” of the Colosseum (Wikipedia).

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5. Nudity in the Vatican

We visited the Sistine Chapel which, of course, has the hugely famous scenes of God’s creation and the history of redemption memorialized in Michelangelo’s paintings. My admiration for Michelangelo’s artistry is huge. I am less sure of what he was trying to communicate.

The sheer quantity of nudity in the Vatican is astonishing to anyone who has not already decided that comments like this are a sign of artistic oafishness.

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I come away with the serious question whether all these ubiquitous private parts are a devout message, or a subtle disdain for the church. Is the in-your-face exposure of God’s buttocks really a faithful exposition of Exodus 33:23? Or is the pope being mooned?

My own take is that if this is an attempt at exposition, it does not succeed.

6. Joyful, Humble, Missionary Calvinists

Predestination was a hot topic surrounding the conference in Italy. I was interviewed for a television program by an Assembly of God host and one of his questions was, “What does predestination mean for you?” Then there was an on-stage interview in front of 1,500 folks where one of the questions was again, “Why is predestination important?” I did my best to be pastorally sensitive and faithful to the Scriptures, like Acts 13:48, “The Gentiles . . . began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”

My sense is that the divisions in the church over this issue are, in part, generationally defined. The older stereotypes of those who hold to Reformed doctrines do not apply the way they once did. Increasingly, those who love these doctrines are joyful, humble, evangelistic, mission-minded, and in love with the church. When the stereotypical objections don’t work anymore, we are left with the Bible. For example, the prayer of Jesus to the Father: “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me” (John 17:6).

7. All Cultures Need Transformation

I was asked about the effects of culture on evangelism. What seemed crucial to me to say was that all cultures are man-centered, self-exalting, and essentially insubordinate toward God. All of them — American, Italian, German, Polish, Nigerian, Brazilian, Chinese — all of them.

For the rest of the post…

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