Psalm 2:7-12: The reign of Christ (Psalm of the Day, 4/365)

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7 I will tell of the decree: the Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” 

Act 3: Christ speaks. The Word of the Lord is here recounted by Christ himself. According to Paul, this decree was fulfilled in Christ’s resurrection and enthronement in heaven (Acts 13:33). This “generation” of Christ does not have to do with his coming into existence, but with his coming into possession of a universal reign.

Confirming this are the subsequent words of the Lord which grant to Christ “every power … in heaven and on earth” (Mt. 28:18). Whether they want to or not, the very nations which opposed him will become subject to him. The imagery of the rod of iron that smashes earthen pots in pieces conveys the idea of decisive judgment in response to the rebellion of the nations. In terms of the whole sweep of the biblical narrative, however, this judgment ultimately serves to fulfill God’s redemptive purpose to bless all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3, 49:10). The final goal of judgment is to put the world into order, and to this end it must sweep away all that contributes to disorder.

Incredibly, Christ will grant his saints to participate in his authority over the earth at the time of his return (Ps. 149:6-9; Rev. 2:26-27; 19:15). Meantime, those who are seated with Christ on his heavenly throne in virtue of their union with him can intercede on behalf of the nations, asking God to make them Christ’s inheritance in salvation (Eph. 2:6).

10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Act 4: The worshipper speaks. With his final exhortations, the psalmist challenges our concept of worship. Remembering that this psalm, like all the psalms, is a song to be used in worship, we must conclude that worship such as this has teeth, playing a vital role in the spiritual warfare to which the church is called. This is worship that commands what it proclaims — worldwide submission of every creature in heaven and earth to Jesus Christ — and that warns of the judgment which will fall upon those who stubbornly refuse to do so.

At the same time, this is worship that announces the joyful message of salvation: he who judges is also our refuge from judgment. Far from being contrary to his love, God’s judgment revealed in Christ is a manifestation of his love. The wrath of God is the form that his love assumes when its loving purpose is threatened by sin. Judgment is God’s refusal to accept the refusal of humanity. He judges because he loves, and he loves by means of his judgment.

To a Lord such as this, the right response is twofold: rejoice with trembling! Paradoxical though it may seem, this is the only possible response. The fact that Christ is the only righteous man means that the rest of us are all unrighteous and deserving of judgment. Ma this fact also means that whoever takes refuge in him will be justified, shielded in the shadow of his own perfect righteousness.

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“We Only Have God”: Learning about the Hell-Storming Power of Prayer from the Church in China (Reformission Monday)

The following post is excerpted from David Wang, “Lessons from the Prayer Habits of the Church in China,” in Teach Us To Pray, ed. D.A. Carson (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 247-254.

The phenomenal growth of the church in China is nothing short of a sovereign move of God. How else can one explain the fact that China, which turned Communist in 1949, now has perhaps the highest number of Christians in any one country? By conservative estimates, there are about fifty million Christians in China today. These are not Christians by birth or by tradition, for there is no Christian tradition in China as in Europe or America. These are people who have made a personal decision to follow Christ, and they are fully aware off the price they may have to pay….

[A]lmost every person who has made contact with China’s Christians is impressed with their sincerity, enthusiasm and simplicity of faith. These traits are seen most clearly in their prayer lives. The following observations on the prayer patterns of China’s believers are derived through personal contacts, correspondence from China, and interviews with itinerant evangelists and pastors of China’s house church movement…. [S]ince the Christian population of China is around fifty million and still growing, my observation of China’s church is but a glimpse of the total picture. The glimpse does reveal, however, chinathat there are certain patterns in the prayer lives in China’s believers … from which we can learn.

I. They pray at great length

A pastor from Hong Kong took several Christian youths to visit China. They enjoyed fellowship with a rural house church for four days. The services were lengthy, continuing from early morning till late evening. But what the Hong Kong pastor remembered most vividly was the time they spent in prayer. He later wrote that the participants felt the forceful leading of the Holy Spirit as the prayers continued at great length. On a couple of days, the prayers lasted three to four hours….

‘The lengthiness of our prayers is a consequence of our persecution’, an itinerant evangelist/pastor in China explained to me. ‘For so many years we had no pastors or Bibles or even songbooks. Therefore when we gathered together we could only pray. It became the major focus of our meetings. In fact it was only God’s omnipotence and the believers’ prayers that sustained our church.’…

II. They pray with intensity

‘They are storming the gates of hell and shaking the Throne of Grace,’ said a co-worker, describing her impression of the prayers of believers in China. ‘Even when they pray in dialects that I don’t understand, I can sense the earnestness of their prayers. I hear it in the urgent, pleading tone of their voices.’ She said she has yet to hear a prayer in China that sounds bland or insipid. Several years ago, elderly Pastor Wang Mingdao, a saint of the church in China, explained to me, ‘We have nothing — no pastors, no churches, no Bibles … nothing! We only have God. Therefore we go to him in desperation.’…

III. They pray with one accord

The Chinese Christians love the opportunity to pray together. First of all, they value the presence of other Christians. Christians may number fifty million in China, but they are still a minority among one billion Chinese. They live in an atheistic, unsympathetic environment. Hence the presence and fellowship of other believers are very precious and encouraging. When Christians get together, the most natural thing is to pray….

IV. They pray with the language of Scripture

[F]or 30 years Bibles have been in extremely short supply. For many of China’s believers, the Word of God consists of what they have memorised from a borrowed Bible, or a Scripture portion copied by hand. Scripture memorisation comes naturally to them, partly due to practice and necessity, but also due to a love of the Word. ‘Often they pray through their entire theology,’ a scholar of a leading Chinese Christian research centre commented. ‘They pray in Scripture language, not only as a reinforcement of what they have memorised, but also as a verbalisation of their theology — the way some of us recite the Apostles’ Creed. But their repetition of Scripture is personal and relevant to their current situation. We outsiders sometimes think that the person leading in prayer is trying to sermonise. This may not be the case, for often believers pray through their theology in their private prayers as well.’

Praying in Scripture language is actually being taught in a mushrooming house church movement in Henan province. I read in its handcopied ‘Pastoral Care Manual’ that using Scriptures in prayer is one certain way of praying according to the will of God. Our co-workers who have close contact with China’s believers all feel we should learn this lesson — that praying in the language of God’s Word brings God-glorifying results.

V. They pray on all occasions

… I believe this is so because in the lives of Chinese believers, so many occasions arise which necessitate prayer. Living under the Communist system, people constantly encounter obstacles and practical difficulties. Goods and services which we take for granted are often hard to come by because of the bureaucratic maze, apathy of service personnel, lack of efficiency, and simple lack of supplies. A rampant ‘back door’ system which is facilitated by gifts or personal ‘connections’ forces the most ethical and conservative Christians of China to turn to God on every occasion. They must acknowledge and rely on him in all things….

One of my co-workers who has regular contact with the Christians in rural China explains: ‘In most parts of rural China, poverty, disasters — both natural and man-made — and the lack of all kinds of resources, drive the Christians to total dependence on God. He is not their last resort. He is the first and only resort.’… In living out Ephesians 6:18, China’s Christians view prayer as an all-powerful means because it reaches the all-powerful God. From experience they know that they can survive without Bibles, churches, pastors and many other things as long as they have a ‘hotline to heaven’. And this they have fully used to move mountains. Answered prayer is probably the most common cause of new conversions in China.

VI. They pray with empathy

My associate who has enjoyed fellowship with thousands of Chinese Christians during his 200-plus visits explained to me why the believers always cry during their prayers. It is not just a sign of their earnestness and desperation, or that the Chinese are more emotional; it demonstrates empathy…. For instance, on more than one occasion I have witnessed China’s Christians crying for the prevailing apathy of the church in Hong Kong. ‘Oh Lord, we are piercing your heart and nailing you to the cross again’, is a common lament. Perhaps because of their close communion with God, they tend to identify more sensitively with the grief and suffering of Christ (Phil. 3:10)….

[T]hey identify with those who are lost without Christ. I have listened to a tape of spontaneous prayer meeting when about fifteen pastors met in Canton … One by one they wept and interceded for the salvation of people in each province of China as well as for the world. One cannot but be moved by their earnestness in interceding for the lost. ‘Have mercy on us, Lord God, have mercy on us!’ they cried out to God for hours. And they repented that they had not done enough to reach the world, even though almost to a man they had been imprisoned for their faith and zeal. This type of prayer is common among ordinary believers as well, and even among new babes in Christ.

VII. They pray with thanksgiving

… One of our co-workers was taken to a house church prayer meeting in Swatow. The room was small, dimly lit and packed with people. There were a few rickety benches for people to sit on. Others were sitting on the bed which was just a board laid across two benches. Children and young people were even crouching underneath the bed! The room was stuffy because there was only one tiny window. To our co-worker, the place was anything but pleasant, and the believers there had few earthly possessions. But when they prayed, sounds of ‘Thank you, Father!’ filled the room. They prayed as though they were in heaven, totally oblivious of their surroundings. This thankful attitude is carried over into other aspects of life. It is quite obvious that as a whole, the Christians in China have ‘… learned to be content whatever the circumstances’ (Phil. 4:11)….

Dr James Hudson Taylor III, a great-grandson of Hudson Taylor and currently General Director of Overseas Missionary Fellowship, likens China’s Christians to the believers in the book of Acts. They were known as ‘those who call on the name of the Lord’. They were a people of prayer. And Dr Taylor asks, ‘I wonder if we (the Christians of the free world) would be described as such? Or have we lost something of that life of prayer?’

“Strive Together With Me”: The Central Role of Prayer in the Apostolic Mission of Paul (Reformission Monday)

To build on last week’s post on the central role of prayer in driving forward the mission of Christ and the church throughout the narratives of Luke and Acts, I commend to you the following excerpt from David G. Peterson’s excellent essay (from the same volume) on the same theme in the writings of the apostle Paul. To elucidate Paul’s understanding of prayer vis-à-vis the progress of his mission, Peterson hones in on Romans 15:30-32:

I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.

[The following excerpt comes from David G. Peterson, “Prayer in Paul’s Writings,” in Teach Us To Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World, D.A. Carson ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 99-100]

Paul’s request for prayer-support comes in the context of declaring his travel plans (15:22-9) and as a sequel to the report of his own prayers in this connection (1:8-15). The importance of this passage is indicated by several factors: his use of the verb parakaleo (‘exhort’, cf. 12:1), his address to the Roman Christians as ‘brothers’, his 001appeal to the authority of their common Lord and the love by which the Spirit binds together … (15:30) and his use of the extraordinary verb sunagonisasthai (‘strive together’, NIV ‘to join me in my struggle’, cf. Col. 4:12) to emphasise the earnestness, urgency and persistence with which they must join him in praying to God….

Paul uses the agon terminology to describe his own costly apostolic mission, understood as a striving for the gospel — a continual contest against opposition in the eschatological age (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-7; Col. 1:29; 2:1). The believers at Philippi are said to be involved in the same struggle for the gospel as Paul (Phil. 1:30). It may be, therefore, that in Rom. 15:30 Paul is saying that the Romans can share in the struggle of his own apostolic ministry as they unite in prayer for him.

It seems likely that Paul had multiple motivations for writing Romans but that his missionary plans lie at the heart of his concern. Rom. 15:23-29 indicates that he had firmly in mind three important journeys: to Jerusalem, to Rome and to Spain. ‘Each of these trips is directly connected with his work as an apostle to the nations/Gentiles, and each one, in its own way, is related to the occasion and purpose of Romans’. Paul’s request for prayer-support in regard to these journeys (15:30-2) is thus essential to his purpose in writing.

The argument of the epistle reaches its climax with this appeal: the apostle hopes that the addressees will be ‘moved to begin united prayer for him, and that by their continuing supplications they themselves may be given that responsible maturity about which he himself has been praying’ (15:5-6, 13). Furthermore, as they unite in praying for him, they will be ready to receive him, to refresh him, and to facilitate his journey to Spain (v.24). Indeed, it appears that the apostle’s aim was to establish a base of operation and support in Rome for his new sphere of ministry in the west of the Empire….

Although the appropriateness of intercessory prayer is sometimes questioned by contemporary writers, the apostle expresses no doubts about its efficacy and its significance in the saving purpose of God. He clearly believed that God was in total control of people and events and that he could overrule the hostility of every opponent, unite disputing Christians, open the way for the gospel to be preached in new lands and grant the gift of faith in response to gospel preaching. Knowing God’s intention that the gospel should be heard in every place (cf. Rom. 1:5-6; 15:18-21), he made his plans to preach Christ where he had not already been named and submitted those plans boldly and directly to the sovereign will of God in prayer. Paul knew that God in his wisdom had decreed that his people should pray for his will to be done.

Thus believers were urged to pray that God would ‘open a door’ for the gospel, providing the apostle with a field in which to work, enabling him to ‘proclaim the mystery of Christ’, and to make it known as he ought (Col. 4:3-4, cf. Eph. 6:18-20). They were encouraged to pray that the word of the Lord might ‘spread rapidly and be honoured’ in other places as it did in their midst and that the apostolic team might be ‘delivered from wicked and evil men’ (2 Thess. 3:1-2). Such prayers were not merely an expression of commitment to the work of the gospel but a genuine calling upon God to act to fulfil his purposes in the ways outlined. Thus there is no escaping the centrality of intercessory prayer to Paul’s theology of mission.

The Urgent Task of Waiting: Blumhardt and Barth on the World-Shaking Power of Patient Expectancy (Reformission Monday)

Reformission Monday is the time when I pause from writing in reformission to reflect on reformission itself. Reformission aims at fulfilling the church’s commission through reformation and renewal, bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to bear on every sphere of human thought, speech, and life. Reformission thus proceeds on the basis of the deep and unbreakable unity between didache and kerygma, between Evangel and evangelism, between message and method, between the Word enfleshed, written, and proclaimed.

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On 15 February, the Gospel Coalition blog featured a fantastic article by missionary Josh Manley entitled “Be Patient, Missions Is Urgent“. If you have not read this article, please go and do so right now! Manley cuts against the grain of the tendency, common to most missionaries, to pursue their vocation through a back-breaking busyness carried out at a neck-breaking pace. Against this, Manley wisely reminds us that it is precisely because the missionary task is so urgent that “it demands men and women with the patience to commit to God’s means in order to accomplish God’s ends”. This is so true. How often we think (regardless of what we might say) that it really is the quantity of our time and the quality of our work upon which the spread of the gospel depends! It is obvious what we truly believe by what we actually do. More energy devoted to “doing for God” rather than “waiting on God” reveals that our trust really reposes on ourselves rather than on God.

This is something about which I am becoming increasingly convicted in my own life and to which I am seeking to dedicate more concentrated effort: the urgent task of waiting on God. As one of Karl Barth’s formative influences, Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, knew, waiting on God does not mean inactivity or indolence but rather the arduous cultivation of a humble expectancy on the power of God in Christ and through the Spirit that disparages any presumption on our part to be able to usher in the kingdom of God through our best and most well-intentioned labors:

Christ is the beginning and the end of God’s kingdom. Therefore we can say with all confidence and certainty, “The Savior will come again!” He is bound to complete his work, and it is our task simply to be servants until his return, to be in the service of him who is coming. We are, as it were, to represent by our lives the coming of Jesus Christ. We must not, therefore, be so concerned and active, or make such tremendous efforts, as though we were able to achieve the victory of good on this earth. This, of course, we are quite incapable of doing. Only the Lord Jesus can bring it about, he who came a first time and is going to come again a second time. He will complete it – not 1456946697we. If we are loyally and firmly set upon this – “He will come again” – then the gospel of the kingdom will become personal and living to us. We must never separate this gospel from Christ’s person. Without his personal presence, no talking about the gospel, no talking about his coming kingdom, is of any value at all.

So we must be prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ, which is not only something in the future but a present reality in those who wait for it in their hearts. We are to be servants watching for his return. Not that we get everything nicely arranged for ourselves, but we can and we must postpone our main concerns until he comes. His servants have a twofold task: they are to wait for him in the sense of being active and doing something, and they are to be stewards. The waiting for the Savior involves a personal relationship to him as to a living person, making the gospel living and relevant. There are many people who are always waiting for something new in Christianity, as if something could be achieved through a new faith or a new church. We leave all that alone. We hold fast to the promise of a personal Savior, whom God will send as he has sent him before. And we know that we as persons are quite unable to lead a faithful life unless our Savior is personally with us…

“‘I am the beginning and the end,’ says the Lord.” Do we believe that? Believing is one thing, but getting down to living it out – that is something else. Let each one of us be earnest with himself and get off his soft bed. Even if it costs you your life, go right in, into the thick of the fight! Jesus is alive, and Jesus is victor, and he has given us our part to carry out. But as we do our part, let us not forget that what finally matters is God’s deeds, not ours. “With God we shall do valiantly!” (Ps. 108:13) This was said by David, who went to war without putting his trust in weapons. Sad to say, our faith does not bring about such deeds. The only kind of deed of God we know is something like founding an institution without the necessary money. If, after energetic begging, the money comes in, we call this a deed of God! This, and other things like it, are all that we know. These, however, are our deeds, not the deeds of God. They are all right, but we have to admit that they are but a makeshift solution until God comes and intervenes. To hope for deeds of the kingdom – that is faith. We must be beggars in the kingdom of God and not go away from the door until we have been given something from God. And we really need drastic deeds of God.[1]

Servants, stewards, warriors, beggars. This is all that we are or can ever be in the cause of Christ. We work, we fight, we sweat, we bleed, but ultimately we trust not in our working or fighting or sweating or bleeding but only in that of Jesus Christ. This goes against every arrogant fiber of our fallen human nature that seeks every opportunity to exalt itself at the expense of dependency on God. Yes, even missionaries are guilty of this! We want to be capable of peforming drastic deeds for God rather than waiting for drastic deeds from God! But alas, we are not capable of such deeds, and until we are crucified with Christ so that we abandon all confidence in our own efforts and fervently beseech the Lord of the harvest to act, we are ultimately doomed to labor in vain. Thus, Karl Barth comments:

But how shall all this [new creation] become reality? Blumhardt has two answers: the one he gives to God, “Only you, O God, can help, none other!” The other he gives to us, “Ask. Ask and you shall receive. And in asking we share in, we help with, the new creation.” Blumhardt sees the coming kingdom being prepared in a double movement in heaven and on earth, and the actual decision lies not in the visible but in the invisible world. If something new is to arise on earth, God ultimately has to do it, but young-barth-1for our part we can sow truth and justice. In quite a natural way, therefore, Blumhardt comes to a concept that is very important to him – the biblical concept of the little flock, God’s Zion, who gather around Christ not for their own salvation but for the redemption of the world. They are to represent God’s cause, God’s future, in a special way. Gathering and waiting fit hand in glove.

What will such people have to do? One thing above all: to know and to become deep and firm in the knowledge that “our actual doing must come from the strength of God.” Such people are best described by what they do not do. This attitude – quiet, eagerly expectant, and directed toward God – is what Blumhardt calls “waiting.” It would be good not to pass lightly over the profound depth of what he means by this, because all too often a comfortable sort of nonsense is made out of this concept. Blumhardt’s meaning is that waiting, although turned inward at first, is in its essence revolutionary: “Lord God, make new! Make us new!” To act – to “wait” – means just the opposite of sitting comfortably and going along with the way things are, with the old order of things. For Blumhardt, divine and human action are closely interlocked, not in a mechanical but in an organic sense. It is our calling, our task in everyday life, that people can see the Savior through us. When we “hasten and wait” toward God like this, the consummation is prepared, coming from God himself. Out of what is now present, and in those who live expectantly in the power of God, the future is built up quietly and inconspicuously. When will it finally appear? What is needed for this to happen in an outer way? Such questions are irrelevant. For those who await God’s coming, behind everything lies the great future of God.[2]

As I read this, one phrase in particular stands out to me and cuts me to the quick: “Such people [that is, such people who are truly useful in the kingdom of God] are best described by what they do not do”. Obviously, there is a bit of hyperbole here to make a point. Barth is clear that “waiting” does not mean that we “sit comfortably”. Yet it does mean that we do not become so immersed in doing work for God that we neglect time better spent in waiting on God. Ideally, we would desire to be able to do both simultaneously: work while waiting, wait while working. However, for many like myself, it is extremely difficult to cultivate an attitude of waiting while drowning in work. This means that, at least for me, I need to set aside more concentrated time for learning to wait on God, primarily through extended and uninterrupted periods of prayer, fasting, and meditating on his Word. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, and I must mortify the latter in order to vivify the former. I am growing increasingly convinced that my best work as a missionary will be accomplished on my knees. If I truly believe that my work is really God’s work and will be effective only when it is done through his power, then why would I not dedicate the most time, not to talking about him to others (as important as that is) but to talking about others to him?

I would like to conclude with an anecdote recounted in the biography of John Hyde, an American missionary to India who was often called “praying Hyde” or “apostle of prayer”. His biographer notes that the impact of his incredible commitment to prayer extended far beyond the amazing results seen in his own ministry:

Behold how much was wrought in the life and work of one lady missionary. She had worked hard for many years in her district, and none of the work there was bearing real fruit. She read the account of Mr. Hyde’s prayer-life, and resolved to devote the best hours of her time to prayer and waiting on God in the study of His Lord and will. She would make prayer primary, and not secondary as she had been doing. She would begin to live a prayer-life in God’s strength. God had said to her: “Call upon Me, and I will show thee great and mighty things. You have not called upon Me, and therefore you do not see these things in your work.” She writes: “I felt that at any cost I must know Him and this prayer-life, and so at last the battle of my heart was ended and I john-hyde-5had the victory.” One thing she prayed for was that God would keep her hidden. She had to face being misunderstood and being dumb and not opening her mouth in self-defense if she was to be a follower of the Lamb.

In less than a year she wrote a letter, and oh, what a change! New life everywhere—the wilderness being transformed into a garden. Fifteen were baptized at first, and one hundred and twenty-five adults during the first half of the following year! “The most of the year has been a battle to keep to my resolution. I have always lived so active a life, accustomed to steady work all day long, and my new life called for much of the best part of the day to be spent in prayer and Bible study. Can you not imagine what it was and what it is sometimes now? To hear others going around hard at work while I stayed quietly in my room, as it were inactive. Many a time I have longed to be out again in active work among the people in the rush of life, but God would not let me go. His hand held me with as real a grip as any human hand, and I knew that I could not go. Only the other day I felt this again and God seemed to say to me, ‘What fruit had ye in those things whereof ye are now ashamed?’ Yes, I knew I was ashamed of the years of almost prayer-less missionary life. “Every department of the work now is in a more prosperous condition than I have ever known it to be. The stress and strain have gone out of my life. The joy of feeling that my life is evenly balanced, the life of communion on the one hand and the life of work on the other, brings constant rest and peace, I could not go back to the old life, and God grant that it may always be impossible.”

Another year passed, and she wrote again: “The spirit of earnest inquiry is increasing in the villages and there is every promise of a greater movement in the future than we have ever yet had. Our Christians now number six hundred in contrast with one sixth of that number two years ago (before she began the prayer-life and gave herself to it). I believe we may expect soon to see great things in India. Praise for His hourly presence and fellowship!”[3]

May God give us the strength, as he did to these his servants, to practice the difficult discipline of waiting on God. The need of the world is immense, and the task of missions is urgent, so let’s get busy waiting!

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[1] Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, Action in Waiting (Walden/Robersbridge/Elsmore: Plough Publishing House, 2012), pp. 15-18, 33-34. Kindle Edition.

[2] Karl Barth, “Afterword” in Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, Action in Waiting (Walden/Robersbridge/Elsmore: Plough Publishing House, 2012), pp. 145-6. Kindle Edition.

[3] E.G. Carre (ed.) Praying Hyde (Alachua: Bridge Logos, 1982), pp. 33-34. Kindle Edition.

Between God and the Devil: Martin Luther on Waging Spiritual War in the Ministry of the Gospel

In a post entitled “Reformation as War” in which I discussed spiritual warfare as a somewhat neglected aspect of Reformation history, I included a brief reference taken from another source to Heiko Oberman and his portrayal of Luther as spiritual warrior in his book Luther: Man between God and the Devil. After writing that post I was hungry for more from Oberman, so I acquired my own copy of his book in eager anticipation of reading further about Luther’s spiritual battles. Oberman did not disappoint, and what I read was so interesting that I thought it would make for an excellent follow-up to my previous post. Here is what Oberman recounts:

In all modern classroom and textbook treatments of Luther, the Devil is reduced to an abstraction: be he a figment of mind or time. Thus the Evil One, as a medieval remnant, can be exorcised from the core of Luther’s experience, life, and thought…

Luther’s world of thought is wholly distorted and apologetically misconstrued if his conception of the Devil is dismissed as a medieval phenomenon and only his faith in Christ is retained as relevant or as the only decisive factor. Christ and the Devil were equally real to him: one was the perpetual intercessor for Christianity, the other a menace to mankind till the end. To argue that Luther never overcame the medieval belief in the Devil says far too little; he even intensified it and lent to it additional urgency: Christ and Satan wage a cosmic war for mastery over Church and world. No one dsc00808can evade involvement in this struggle. Even for the believer there is no refuge—neither monastery nor the seclusion of the wilderness offer him a chance for escape…

There is no way to grasp Luther’s milieu of experience and faith unless one has an acute sense of his view of Christian existence between God and the Devil: without a recognition of Satan’s power, belief in Christ is reduced to an idea about Christ—and Luther’s faith becomes a confused delusion in keeping with the tenor of his time. Attempts are made to offer excuses for Luther by pointing out that he never doubted the omnipotence of God and thus determined only narrow limits for the Devil’s activities. Luther himself would have been outraged at this view: the omnipotent God is indeed real, but as such hidden from us. Faith reaches not for God hidden but for God revealed, who, incarnate in Christ, laid Himself open to the Devil’s fury…. To Luther Christmas was the central feast: “God for us.” But that directly implies “the Devil against us.”

This new belief in the Devil is such an integral part of the Reformation discovery that if the reality of the powers inimical to God is not grasped, the incarnation of Christ, as well as the justification and temptation of the sinner are reduced to ideas of the mind rather than experiences of faith. That is what Luther’s battle against the Devil meant to convey. Centuries separate Luther from a modern world which has renounced and long since exorcised the Devil, thus finding it hard to see the difference between this kind of religion and medieval witchcraft. But Luther distinguished sharply between faith and superstition. He understood the hellish fears of his time, then discovered in the Scriptures the true thrust and threat of Satan and experienced himself the Devil’s trials and temptations. Consequently he, unlike any theologian before or after him, was able to disperse the fog of witches’ sabbath and sorcery and show the adversary for what he really was: violent toward God, man, and the world…

The following chronicle of his own encounter with the Devil as a poltergeist has a clearly medieval ring:

It is not a unique, unheard-of thing for the Devil to thump about and haunt houses. In our monastery in Wittenberg I heard him distinctly. For when I began to lecture on the Book of Psalms and I was sitting in the refectory after we had sung matins, studying and writing my notes, the Devil came and thudded three times in the storage chamber [the area behind the stove] as if dragging a bushel away. Finally, as it did not want to stop, I collected my books and went to bed. I still regret to this hour that I did not sit him out, to discover what else the Devil wanted to do. I also heard him once over my chamber in the monastery.

The final passage, with its pointed formulation and its underlying expression of contempt for the Devil, was amazing at the time and is overlooked today: “But when I realized that it was Satan, I rolled over and went back to sleep again.” It is not as a poltergeist that the Devil discloses his true nature, but as the adversary who thwarts the Word of God; only then is he really to be feared. He seeks to capture the conscience, can quote the Scriptures without fault, and is more pious than God—that is satanical.

When I awoke last night, the Devil came and wanted to debate with me; he rebuked and reproached me, arguing that I was a sinner. To this I replied: Tell me something new, Devil! I already know that perfectly well; I have committed many a solid and real sin. Indeed there must be good honest sins—not fabricated and invented ones—for God to forgive for His beloved Son’s sake, who took all my sins upon Him so that now the sins I have committed are no longer mine but belong to Christ. This wonderful gift of God I am not prepared to deny [in my response to the Devil], but want to acknowledge and confess…

Many of these stories come from Luther’s Table Talk, the collection of his conversations with dinner guests…Luther’s recollections do not have the function of self-glorification, nor do they look back to the “good old days” of a man who is getting on in years. As a rule they have a point to make: the reporting of battles past is to instruct and prepare the younger generations for the prospect of the fierce opposition which will always threaten the preaching of the Gospel.[1]

The tendency that Oberman identifies — the tendency to minimize or overlook this particular aspect of Luther’s life and work as a Reformer — is one that is not limited to purely secular circles. As Christians, we are also susceptible to cultural, scientific, and philosophical influences that would lead us to pay little attention to the reality of the spiritual war in which we, just like Luther, are engaged. This does not mean that we deny the existence of the enemy, it is just that we can tend to underestimate the ferocity with which he labors to undermine any effort to preach the gospel and make disciples of all nations. While they may sound a bit strange to modern ears, Luther’s own testimonials of his scuffles with the devil are a stark reminder of this reality. As Paul stated in Ephesians 6:11-13:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

These spiritual forces of evil are real, and the fiery darts that they continually shoot do perhaps more damage than we are aware. This is not to give them too much credit, but rather to wake us up to the reality of the battle in which we are always engaged, whether we want to be or not. This is why Paul continued by exhorting the Ephesians (6:18-19) to

keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.

In light of our warfare, we must pray, pray, pray, and then pray some more! If Paul needed prayer “with all perseverance” in order to open his mouth boldly to proclaim the gospel, how could we think that could get by with anything less? Our adversary prowls like a roaring lion, seeking to destroy and devour any effort to proclaim the gospel, to blind people to the light which threatens to dispel this present darkness. So brothers and sisters, let us pray indeed with all perseverance that through the preaching of the gospel to the ends of the earth the kingdom might come and the will of God might be done on earth as in heaven. And let us be constantly prepared, dressed in the full armor of God, to do battle with the spiritual forces of evil, because “where Christ is present, the adversary is never far away”.[2] Yet let us also take heart, for as Luther quipped: “When the Devil harasses us, then we know ourselves to be in good shape!”[3]

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[1] Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil. (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2006), pp.104-6.

[2] Ibid., p.106

[3] Ibid.

Reformation As War: The Story of One Man’s Awakening to the Reality of Spiritual Opposition (Reformission Monday)

I recently finished reading a challenging, disturbing, but ultimately rewarding book appropriately entitled The Awakening. I say “appropriately entitled” for two reasons. First, it recounts the story of Johann Christoph Blumhardt, a nineteenth-century German pastor, and his “awakening” to the spiritual war in which he found himself but of which he had been unaware and in which he had thus remained ineffectual. Second, by recounting Blumhardt’s efforts to bring revival and reformation (i.e. reformission) to the small German town of Möttlingen, it also serves to awaken the reader to the reality that all who engage in such ministry must face. In the book’s introduction, Günter Krüger provides a synopsis of Blumhardt’s “awakening”, subsequent “fight”, and ultimate victory:

Born in Stuttgart, Germany, into a long line of Swabian craftsmen, Johann Christoph Blumhardt (1805-1880) read the entire Bible twice by the time he was twelve, and the rest of his life bore the imprint of its message. Though his early devotion never faltered, he began to wonder even in his youth why the power of the gospel seemed so limited in the present day. If the Bible was truly the living word of God, he wondered, why was God’s nearness so hard to perceive in the world around him? Where was the spirit that had animated the first believers in the apostolic era?

In the summer of 1838 Blumhardt, now thirty-three, … took on the pastorate at the nearby village of Möttlingen. Möttlingen and its affiliated parish, Haugstett, were among the poorest in the region. When Blumhardt arrived, a crippling spiritual lethargy lay over the whole congregation. Pastor Barth, Blumhardt’s immediate blumhardt100predecessor and a brilliant preacher, complained bitterly to him that the parish seemed preached to death; people were fed up with the gospel, and if some still attended church, most of them slept in their seats. The entire town seemed to be held in a sleepy thrall.

Beginning in the fall of 1841, Blumhardt was drawn into a spiritual struggle that he referred to for the rest of his life as “the fight.” At first he tried to keep a cautious distance from it, but it soon became obvious that he would not be able to stay uninvolved. Gottliebin Dittus, a young woman from a pious Möttlingen family who had once been Pastor Barth’s favorite pupil, was regarded in her village as a “God-fearing” member of the parish. At the same time she was known, ever since her childhood, to have suffered recurring nervous disorders and various other maladies, including inexplicable attacks not unlike epileptic seizures. Repulsed by her peculiar behavior, Blumhardt kept his distance from her. He would come when summoned during her worst attacks, but he went reluctantly, feeling that her case was no task for him as a pastor. Village physician Dr. Späth, on the other hand, argued that Gottliebin’s disorders were beyond the scope of his medical knowledge, if not symptomatic of supernatural forces at work. It was on this account that Blumhardt finally agreed to observe the woman.

Before long [Blumhardt] was so deeply involved in Gottliebin’s struggle that no one could hold him back. For one thing, he was ashamed at the thought of conceding power to the darkness affecting her. Moreover, he pitied her. Little did he know that he had embarked on an uncharted journey of the most bizarre kind and entered a battle so intense that it would demand all of his energies for the next two years. Though the echoes of this battle reverberated for the rest of Blumhardt’s life, he tended to play it down whenever he was asked about it in later years, insisting that it was not the struggle itself but its aftermath that was really significant. This aftermath was a remarkable movement that arose soon after the conclusion of Blumhardt’s fight. An unprecedented “awakening” of repentance that swept his entire parish like a wave, it soon spread beyond Möttlingen to neighboring villages and towns throughout the Black Forest…

Modern minds tend to deny or ignore the very existence of satanic forces, let alone their hold on specific individuals. Blumhardt felt that this skepticism trivializes the reality of evil….

As soon as one tells a bible story with a phrase like “Then he cast out the demon…” people tune out; they dismiss it as religious nonsense. They do this because they cannot recognize any capacity for evil, any wretchedness in themselves. If we are not aware of human wretchedness, we cannot appreciate the Savior’s role in the kingdom of God, which means the end for Satan…And it will come to that! If we already have power to overcome evils, is that not enough reason to believe that God is beginning to take up his reign?

Blumhardt’s insights have great relevance today…For Blumhardt, the only acceptable tools were the “pure weapons of prayer and the word of God.” The building up of the church in Möttlingen did not begin with preaching but, as he put it, with struggle, prayer, and finally, victory over “personalities of darkness.”[1]

There is much more to this story than what is summarized here, and I can only recommend reading the book in its entirety to discover all the incredible things that occurred during Blumhardt’s ministry in Möttlingen. My purpose in reproducing this snapshot here is to make a simple point: reformation (or, as the case may be, reformission) is war. Not, of course, war “against flesh and blood”, as Paul would remind us in Ephesians 6:12, but “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”.

The reality of this war is graphically illustrated in the example of Johann Blumhardt, whose hard-fought struggle against the demonic forces oppressing a young woman in his parish ultimately led to the veil of blindness being lifted from the entire town and region. Although initially hesitant to involve himself in “the fight”, as he called it, Blumhardt came to realize that the real reason why the people in Möttlingen seemed so cold and indifferent – dead even – to the preaching of the gospel was due to the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” which could not be opposed except by wielding “the pure weapons of prayer and the word of God”.

Note well: the Word of God and prayer. It is not that Blumhardt and his predecessor had neglected to preach; indeed they had not! Rather, Blumhardt discovered that when he preached, the gospel remained “veiled to those who are perishing” for “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:3). Had not Blumhardt awakened to the nature of the enemy and of his hold over the people of Möttlingen, and had he not fully given himself over to battle that enemy, consciously and directly, not only with the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God, but also with much prayer and fasting, he would likely never have seen the greater awakening which eventually took place, an awakening that resulted in the most awesome demonstration of the power of God to pierce the darkness and lift the blinding veil from the eyes of large numbers of people so that they could see the glory of Christ in the gospel.

As I reflect on this with respect to my own calling and ministry, I must confess that, although I give lip service to the reality of spiritual warfare, the resolve of the enemy, and the necessity of prayer, I have not been as conscious of nor direct in engaging in the battle of prayer as I should be. From the opening words of the book, I could identify with Blumhardt’s frustration: I am convinced that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, yet I don’t see much fruit as I share it, teach it, and preach it. Why is that? Perhaps the story of Blumhardt’s awakening is stirring an awakening in myself, bringing me to the realization that the god of this world is indeed blinding the minds of those to whom I am ministering in Italy, and that this kind of spiritual battle cannot be won “by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29). Indeed, was not that the problem to which Jesus alerted his disciples when they could not cast out the demon in Mark 9?

Truly, truly, the battle of reformission cannot be won through study, writing, teaching, and preaching alone (something that I as a theologian-type naturally gravitate toward). Hearts will not be changed, churches will not be revived, faith will luther-inkwell-4not be reformed and rekindled until the spiritual hosts of wickedness are confronted through prayer. For anyone with an understanding of the Reformation, this should not come as any surprise, as Clinton Arnold points out:

Satan and his forces fiercely pursue their objective of promulgating all forms of evil in the world. This includes, above all, deceiving people and hindering them from grasping the truth about God’s revelation of himself in the Lord Jesus Christ. But it also includes working to bring about the demise of the church through inciting moral evils among its members. This understanding of the devil and his work was central to the Reformation. Heiko Oberman, Reformation scholar and biographer of Martin Luther, has observed that for Luther the precious truth that “God is for us” directly implies that “the devil is against us.” He goes on to note that belief in the devil’s opposition to Christ and the gospel “is such an integral part of the Reformation discovery that if the reality of the powers inimical to God is not grasped, the incarnation of Christ, as well as the justification and temptation of the sinner are reduced to ideas of the mind rather than experiences of faith.”[2]

So following the example of Luther and Blumhardt, let us devote ourselves more than ever before to the hard labor and costly warfare (it is hard and costly!) of incessant prayer, “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph. 6:18) that the god of this world might be thwarted in his efforts and that those under his blinding spell might be liberated to see the glory of Christ in the gospel. And in so doing, may God be pleased to bring about another powerful awakening in our day and place as he did in nineteenth-century Möttlingen.

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[1] Günter Krüger, ‘Introduction’ in The Awakening: One Man’s Battle with Darkness by Friedrich Zuendel, (Rifton: The Plough Publishing House, 2000), pp.xiii-xviii

[2] Clinton E. Arnold. 3 Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare (Three Crucial Questions) (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), (Kindle Locations 300-307).

The Mystery of Iniquity (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 13)

Revelation 13:1, 5-10

And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads … And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world. If anyone has an ear, let him hear: If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.

(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.88-90)

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Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation

Surely this is the Word of God to us out of this chapter. There is such a seething evil in the sea of humanity that no matter how much we try to give Christian shape to this world apart from Christ Himself, all that we may do is to give a fresh disposition to the forces of evil among men. Sooner or later that latent evil will break out through the surface and reveal itself in bestial form and all the world will be aghast at it. It will hypnotize them and fascinate them until they are thoroughly deceived.

Let us make no mistake. No amount of reshuffling can put a truly Christian shape on the world. No amount of international discussion, no amount of diplomatic arrangements, no United Nations policy can really imprint a Christian pattern and character upon the world apart from the Gospel of salvation. If the nations do not give Christ pre-eminence, they are bound to fail in their efforts for peace. They may succeed for a time. They may erect a semblance of Christian rule among the peoples of the earth. They may appear to imprint the lineaments of the Kingdom of God upon the races of humanity. All that can be done apart from Jesus Christ is to give a fresh disposition to unbelief, to give organic and subtle shape to human evil and pride and selfishness. Thus in due time even so-called Christian organizations may easily reveal themselves as part of a many-headed monster of evil, the more monstrous because it is world-wide and bears Christian similitude… Our Lord warned us that whenever people say, “Here is the Kingdom of God,” or “There is the Kingdom of God,” not to believe them, for the Kingdom of God does not come with observation. It would be blasphemy to confound the Kingdom of God with the bestial images of world power.

We must learn, therefore, not to put our trust in any human image, no matter how marvellous and how Christian it may appear to be. Let us not drag the Kingdom of God down to the patterns and politics of this strange evil world. Let us rather hold fast to the Word of God, the Word that promises a new heaven and a new earth. As yet the Kingdom of God is invisible, unobservable, except to the eye of faith, but God is working. We may understand but little of God’s strange work in history. All that we are able to see may be the beastly shapes of human pride and lust for power rampant in the earth, but one day these weird and crooked patterns will pass away and the promise of God will be revealed as perfectly fulfilled.

That applies to our own heart and life as well. Let us not confuse the Kingdom of God with this or that image or pattern in our own life. Our life is hid with Christ in God. The day will come, said Jesus, when we shall learn the truth about ourselves and about the world and we shall be surprised. But we must keep our eyes fixed entirely upon Him. He is the only Image of God, and the true Image of man. He is the Alpha and Omega, the Author and the Finisher of our faith, the Creator and the Redeemer of the world. What He has purposed in Creation will not be thwarted. He will redeem it from all its sin and evil. It is only in Jesus Christ that we may discern the truth. He is the guarantee of faith, that the evils forms and perverted patterns of this world shall utterly pass away and at last the human heart, the society and the world in which He lived, will take their full imprint and character from the image of Jesus Christ alone.

The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 12)

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” Revelation 12:7-12

(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.74-75, 78-79, 80-81)

Here we have another panoramic view of world-history, but this time more from the perspective of the Kingdom of God…The Kingdom of [the] Truth and Love [of God] is even now striking at the black heart of this world’s evil with invincible might. In the suffering Lamb of God, eternal Holiness and Love have broken right into the midst of our human struggle and shame and ghastly tragedies…It is precisely because the devil and his minions have been so utterly defeated that the earth is thrown into such turmoil and trouble. That decisive defeat becomes apparent as all the powers of spiritual evil, 6285f5c39b531abd12c6eea46ba36043dislodged by the Cross, fall upon the earth and gather together by subtle deception the pride and passions and lusts of men and direct them against the Kingdom of God as it is being enacted in history…

Surely that is a sign of hope in our world. If there is a devil of a row, it only means that the dragon is angry and has lost his nerve. This is the beginning of the end. If the whole world is in confusion, it means that the Word of God is casting out Satan, and Michael and his angels are at war and the devil and all his legions are being defeated. That is the way to read the signs of the times, the terrible signs of our own day. There is not one whit of doubt but that evil is feeling already the pressure of the Lamb of God. In the New Testament when the Kingdom of God came nigh in Jesus Christ, men possessed with evil spirits cried out in terror and anger. “What have we to do with thee, thou Holy One of God?” over vast regions of the world today one hears the same cry, and it is the sign that the finger of God is casting out Satan.

What about the saints of God in all this hubbub and confusion? Will they not be engulfed in the maelstrom of evil? “No!” says St. John…They overcome the devil by the blood of the Lamb and by the Word of their testimony and they love not their lives unto death. That is real faith. Hold on to the Cross in the very teeth of death even if these be dragon’s teeth. Hold on to the Word of your testimony no matter who accuses you. he that endureth to the end, says the Word of God, shall be saved. This is what John calls the patience of the saints.

All that is the work of the man-child born out of Israel. That is the way, and the only way, the kingdoms of this earth can become the Kingdom of God – by the might of the Lamb, by the Word of the living God and by the blood of the Cross in the heart and conscience of men. That is the most potent force in heaven and earth. Who would have thought that the helpless Babe of Bethlehem was anything but a harmless child? Who would have thought the helpless Man on the Cross was such a mighty power? But the devil knows and trembles.