“This Grim Fire I Fear Not”: The Forging of Scotland’s Reformer in the Burning of George Wishart

One of the important historical sites in the lovely seaside town of St. Andrews in Scotland is the ruins of its historic castle. Just outside of the castle along the street there is an inconspicuous marker laid into the pavement consisting in the letters “GW” which stand for the name George Wishart. The marker quietly commemorates the exact spot upon which Wishart was burned at the stake on the orders of Roman Catholic Cardinal David Beaton for preaching the Reformed faith. Compared with his disciple John Knox, Wishart is not nearly as well known or widely remembered, having died when he was only aboutDSC_0423 33 years old. Apart from a relatively short period of itinerant preaching in Scotland, Wishart does not appear to have accomplished much in promoting the Scottish Reformation. Yet, as many have remarked, had there been no George Wishart, there would likely have been no John Knox, at least Knox as the Reformer that we esteem today.

Knox himself paid tribute to his courageous mentor in his History of the Reformation of Scotland when he wrote the following account of Wishart’s execution on 1 March 1546:

The manner of Master George Wishart’s taking was thus:—Departing from Haddington, he took his good-night, as it were for ever, of all his acquaintance, especially from Hugh Douglas of Longniddry. John Knox pressing to go with him, Master George said: ‘Nay, return to your [pupils], and God bless you. One is sufficient for one sacrifice.’ He then caused a two-handed sword, which commonly was carried with him, to be taken away from John Knox, who, albeit unwillingly, obeyed and returned with Hugh Douglas…. Before midnight, the place was beset about so that none could escape to make advertisement. At the first word, Master George said, ‘Open the gates. The Blessed Will of my God be done!’…

The Bishops, with their complices, condemned this innocent man to be burnt as a heretic, thinking verily, that they should do to God good sacrifice … When all was done and said, my Lord Cardinal caused his tormentors to pass again with the meek lamb unto [St. Andrew’s] Castle, until such time as the fire was made ready…. When the fire was made ready, and the gallows, at the west part of the Castle of St. Andrews near the Priory, my Lord Cardinal, dreading that Master George should have been taken away by his friends, commanded to ben all the ordnance of the Castle right against the place of execution, and commanded all his gunners to stand beside their guns, until such time as he was burned. They bound Master George’s hands behind his back, and led him forth with their soldiers from the Castle, to the place of their cruel and wicked execution….

When he came to the fire, he sat down upon his knees, and rose up again; and thrice he said these words: ‘O Thou Saviour of the World, have mercy upon me! Father of Heaven, I commend my spirit into Thy holy hands.’ Then he turned to the people and said: ‘I beseech you, Christian Brethren and Sisters, be not offended at the Word of God, for the affliction and torments which ye see prepared for me. But I exhort you, love the Word of God and suffer patiently, and with a comfortable heart, for the Word’s sake, which is your undoubted salvation and everlasting comfort.

Moreover, I pray you, show my brethren and sisters, which have heard me oft, that they cease not to learn the Word of God which I taught unto them, for no persecutions in this world, which lasteth not. Show them that my doctrine was no 1024px-The_martyrdom_of_George_Wishartwives’ fables, after the constitutions made by men. If I had taught men’s doctrine, I had gotten greater thanks by men. But for the true Evangel, which was given to me by the Grace of God, I suffer this day by men, not sorrowfully, but with a glad heart and mind. For this cause I was sent, that I should suffer this fire for Christ’s sake. Consider and behold my visage. Ye shall not see me change my colour! This grim fire I fear not; and so I pray you to do, if any persecution come unto you for the Word’s sake; and not to fear them that slay the body, and afterward have no power to slay the soul. Some have said I taught that the soul of man should sleep until the Last Day; but I know surely that my soul shall sup with my Saviour this night, ere it be six hours, for whom I suffer this.’

Then he prayed for them which accused him, saying; ‘I beseech Thee, Father of Heaven, forgive them that have of any ignorance, or else of any evil mind, forged lies upon me. I forgive them with all my heart. I beseech Christ to forgive them that have condemned me to death this day ignorantly.’ Last of all, he said to the people on this manner: ‘I beseech you, Brethren and Sisters, to exhort your Prelates to the learning of the Word of God, that they may be ashamed to do evil, and learn to do good. If they will not convert themselves from their wicked errors, there shall hastily come upon them the Wrath of God, which they shall not eschew.’

Many faithful words said he in the meantime, taking no care of the cruel torments prepared for him. Last of all, the hangman, his tormentor, upon his knees, said; ‘Sir, I pray you, forgive me, for I am not guilty of your death.’ To whom he answered: ‘Come hither to me.’ When he was come to him, he kissed his cheek, and said: ‘Lo! here is a token that I forgive thee My heart, do thine office!’ Then, the trumpet sounding, he was put upon the gibbet and hanged, and there burnt to powder. When the people beheld the great tormenting of that innocent, they might not withhold from piteous mourning and complaining of the innocent lamb’s slaughter.[1]

As Knox goes on to recount, Wishart’s martyrdom set off a chain of events that in God’s providence brought Knox to the forefront of Scottish Protestantism, under whose leadership the Reformed faith would arguably have its most widespread, unified success. The outrage over Wishart’s execution led to the storming of St. Andrews castle, the establishment of a consolidated Protestant movement, and the recognition of Knox as the movement’s primary preacher and driving force. Not only this, but as reflected in Knox’s History, the passionate preaching and dying exhortations of George Wishart fueled a fire in Knox’s bones equal to the flames which had consumed his beloved mentor. Little did Cardinal Beaton know, the fire that he kindled in an attempt to stop the spread of Reformation preaching in Scotland was the spark that ultimately set the entire country ablaze.

When Wishart went to the stake, the prospect of the Reformation’s success was tenuous at best. It would be understandable if in a passing moment of weakness prior to his execution Wishart had questioned if his short life really amounted to all that much some accounts, he had failed in what he endeavoured to do. Yet his was his self-sacrifice thatWishartKnox played a significant, if not determinative, role in shaping John Knox into the Reformer that he became and in galvanizing the Scottish people as a whole under the banner of the Reformation.

I am reminded of Jesus’s words to Peter at the end of John’s gospel: When Peter saw [the disciple whom Jesus loved], he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!'” No doubt Wishart would have wanted to remain to continue to preach alongside Knox for many years to come. Perhaps he may have questioned God in allowing his ministry to be cut short. Yet in the providence of God, what perhaps seemed like a failure and a defeat in the immediate time turned out to be the catalyst for Scotland’s Reformation. We never know all that God intends to do with us, and it may take eternity before we discover the marvelous beauty and perfection of his sovereign plan. Yet discover it we shall. So let us not despair in our present sufferings, failures, setbacks, and defeats. In God’s redemptive economy, nothing is ever wasted.

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[1] John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 52, 55-56, 58-59, 62-65.

“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?’

Serving and Suffering Under the Cross: Martin Luther on the Visible Sign of the Militant Church (Reformission Monday)

As I suggested in my post “Rediscovering the Scandalous God“, Martin Luther’s concept of the “theology of the cross”, as opposed to the “theology of glory”, is one that has significant implications for the mission of the church. Luther himself alluded to this in his 1539 treatise On the Councils and the Church in which he outlined seven visible marks or signs by which the true church of Jesus Christ distinguishes itself from the world. After explicating the first six marks in terms of 1) the Word of God, 2) baptism, 3) the Lord’s supper, 4) the office of the keys, 5) the ordained ministry, and 6) corporate prayer and praise, Luther sets forth the seventh sign as the one that pervades and conditions all the others:

Seventh, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ. And the only reason they must suffer is that they steadfastly adhere to Christ and God’s word, enduring this for the sake of Christ, Matthew 5[:11], “Blessed are you when men persecute you on my account.” after-lucas-cranach-the-younger-martin-luther-half-length-to-the-left-with-a-book-in-his-handsThey must be pious, quiet, obedient, and prepared to serve the government and everybody with life and goods, doing no one any harm. No people on earth have to endure such bitter hate…

In summary, they must be called heretics, knaves, and devils, the most pernicious people on earth, to the point where those who hang, drown, murder, torture, banish, and plague them to death are rendering God a service. No one has compassion on them; they are given myrrh and gall to drink when they thirst. And all of this is done not because they are adulterers, murderers, thieves, or rogues, but because they want to have none but Christ, and no other God. Wherever you see or hear this, you may know that the holy Christian church is there, as Christ says in Matthew 5[:11–12], “Blessed are you when men revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” This too is a holy possession whereby the Holy Spirit not only sanctifies his people, but also blesses them.[1]

Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance comments on this facet of the church’s existence and applies it to its missionary calling when he writes:

The Church presents a visible form in this world but of the kind that the world will not accept by its standards, for to it the Church presents a contrary picture as weak and deserted and without sign of power of worth…. The Church is always the Church militant under the Cross (sub cruce) and therefore ‘according to its external aspect’ it appears afflicted by God…. Because the Church in this world always lives [in between the realm of Satan and the Cross], it always presents a [scandalous face]. That may be due to its contemptible smallness in the eyes of the world, but is mostly due to the fact that it suffers and is persecuted and is maligned. God hides the Church, therefore, [under a dark and dreadful cover]. The Church lives in the flesh and in the world but lives there in no other way than by faith in Christ the Son of God who suffered for the Church. The Church for Christ’s sake suffers continuous abuse and vilification, is confounded and rejected by men, is mortified and dies, but it lives in Christ, and therefore all these opprobrious experiences and scandals which the Church has in the World are the precious gems with which God ornaments the Church….

That is Luther’s constant theme that it is only through [agony] and [temptation] that the Church exists and fulfils its mission, and therefore he insists on interpreting the whole idea of the essential form of the Church in history in terms of the Cross…. This argument convinces us that the Church is the Kingdom of God; all other kingdoms of the world fight against the one weak and despised Church but do not prevail at all. But the Church itself conquers at last all kingdoms and converts them to itself, by the very power of God. But before it increases like that its weakness and humility is scandalous.[2]

The theology of the cross, when applied to the church and its missionary vocation, cuts against all human expectations and standards. Whereas worldly wisdom prizes strength, size, status, and success, the wisdom of God reveals itself in weakness, smallness, insignificance, and defeat. We naturally want to imagine that the church of Jesus Christ would go forth into the world with great power and glory, stunning people into the kingdom with an impressive display of eloquent speech and visible wonders. However, as Luther rightly points out, the church of Christ exists only because of the cross of Christ, and thus its clearest mark is the opposite of what anyone would think: suffering, reproach, derision, poverty, contempt, weakness, persecution, and death. If God accomplished his saving victory over sin in the shameful death of his Son on the cross, then the church commissioned to herald this victory should not expect to do so in a different manner.

A couple of biblical examples bear this out and deserve mentioning. First, we should think of Stephen in Acts 7 whose Spirit-empowered, grace-filled witness ended in martyrdom by stoning. It would be easy to compare the outcome of his preaching with that of Peter in Acts 2 and conclude that he ended in utter failure. Such a conclusion would be premature and unwarranted, however, for Acts 8 reveals that his execution instigated a great persecution against the Jerusalem church, the result of which was the scattering of the first Christians into the regions of Judea and Samaria and a greater diffusion of the gospel. According to the narrative, it was not in spite of, but because of Stephen’s death the-stoning-of-st-stephen-1625and the subsequent persecution that the Word of God spread in fulfillment of Christ’s promise in Acts 1:8. In other words, Christ accomplishes his mission through the cruciform suffering of his church.

The apostle Paul knew this as well. His second letter to the Corinthians finds him defending himself against the so-called “super-apostles” who were undermining his apostolic authority on the grounds that he cut a fairly unimpressive figure for one who claimed to be an apostle of Christ. How could one who suffered so greatly as Paul, who was so constantly afflicted and persecuted for the gospel, truly be an apostle of the risen and ascended Christ? Would it not make more sense that the life of an apostle would be characterized by great power and glory and victory rather than abject weakness and shame and defeat? Quite the contrary, Paul argues:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh (2 Cor. 4:7-11).

Far from discrediting his apostleship, Paul contended that his suffering actually validated it! For Paul, it was unthinkable to preach nothing “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) in a way incongruous with the message itself. What credibility could be lent to the gospel of Christ crucified if it were preached by those who only know comfort and ease? How could one who has never known hardship or defeat or pain or weakness or shame ever commend the folly and scandal of the cross as the wisdom and power of God? No, for Paul, it was precisely his cruciform message that gave shape to his apostolic ministry. Only by bearing in his own body the death of Jesus could the resurrection life be manifested as well. Only by despairing of life itself could Paul be forged into instrument fit to reveal the power of God who raises the dead (2 Cor. 1:8-9).[3]

What Stephen and Paul knew, Luther discovered and handed on to us. The church of Jesus marching forth militant into the world on mission can do so only through suffering, shame, weakness, and death. The cross shows us that God has purposed to accomplish his saving victory not in spite of, but precisely because of a cruci-formed church. While this may appear scandalous and foolish to the world, as well as to other so-called Christians enamored, like the Corinthians, with a theology of glory, it is the means — indeed the only means! — by which the gospel goes forth in power. May we not, therefore, run from a cruciform life as though it were inimical to our mission; rather let us embrace the cross in order that we might, not only in word but also in deed, share in the sufferings of Christ, becoming like him in his death that we might attain, and lead others, to the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:10-11).

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[1] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 375-376.

[2] T.F. Torrance, Kingdom and Church: A Study in the Theology of the Reformation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 66-69.

[3] This is why the theology of the cross, and the mission shaped by it, does not exclude the resurrection. It recognizes that just as Easter Sunday was necessarily preceded by Good Friday, so also the revelation of resurrection power in the life and the ministry of the church can only come about through humble submission to the cross that is laid on it. Resurrection life does not appear prior to or independent of the cross, but through it and in the midst of it.

“Nothing Other Than Sheer Life”: Martin Luther on Preparing to Die (1519)

In 1519, Martin Luther preached a sermon in which he offered counsel on the importance and manner of preparing to die. This message has become particularly relevant to me in light of the passing of a dear family member. In a day and age in which we try to shield ourselves as much as possible from death and dying, Luther’s exhortation to begin to prepare for death — even at a young age (as Luther was when he preached this sermon) — may seem a bit morbid and morose. I think, however, that Luther’s exhortation is wise counsel indeed, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Whether we like it or not, we will all die (barring, of course, the return of Christ), and since we know not the day of our death, it behoves us all to prepare ourselves for it. Are we not, after all, called by Jesus to take up cross and die daily as we follow him?

What follows is an excerpt from Luther’s sermon highlighting the centrality that he placed on Christ as our only hope in life and death. When we walk, or prepare to walk, through the valley of the shadow of death, the light of our path will be knowing that in Christ crucified and risen again we find “nothing other than sheer life”. It is Christ’s victory over death, and this alone, that can adequately prepare us for our dying day.

[S]ince everyone must depart, we must turn our eyes to God, to whom the path of death leads and directs us. Here we find the beginning of the narrow gate and of the straight path to life [Matt. 7:14]. All must joyfully venture forth on this path, for though the gate is quite narrow, the path is not long. Just as an infant is born with peril and pain from the small abode of its mother’s womb into this immense heaven and earth, that is, into this world, so man departs this life through the narrow gate of death. And although the heavens and the earth in which we dwell at present seem large and wide to us, they are nevertheless much narrower and smaller than the mother’s womb in comparison with the future heaven. Therefore, the death of the dear saints is called a new birth, and their feast day is known in Latin as natale, that is, the day of their birth. However, the narrow passage of death makes us think of this life as expansive and the life beyond as confined. Therefore, we must believe this and learn a lesson from the physical birth of a child, as Christ declares, “When a deathPortraitofLutherwoman is in travail she has sorrow; but when she has recovered, she no longer remembers the anguish, since a child is born by her into the world” [John 16:21]. So it is that in dying we must bear this anguish and know that a large mansion and joy will follow [John 14:2]….

Death looms so large and is terrifying because our foolish and fainthearted nature has etched its image too vividly within itself and constantly fixes its gaze on it. Moreover, the devil presses man to look closely at the gruesome mien and image of death to add to his worry, timidity, and despair. Indeed, he conjures up before man’s eyes all the kinds of sudden and terrible death ever seen, heard, or read by man. And then he also slyly suggests the wrath of God with which he [the devil] in days past now and then tormented and destroyed sinners. In that way he fills our foolish human nature with the dread of death while cultivating a love and concern for life, so that burdened with such thoughts man forgets God, flees and abhors death, and thus, in the end, is and remains disobedient to God. We should familiarize ourselves with death during our lifetime, inviting death into our presence when it is still at a distance and not on the move….

You must look at death while you are alive and see sin in the light of grace and hell in the light of heaven, permitting nothing to divert you from that view. Adhere to that even if all angels, all creatures, yes, even your own thoughts, depict God in a different light—something these will not do…. [Y]ou must not view or ponder death as such, not in yourself or in your nature, nor in those who were killed by God’s wrath and were overcome by death. If you do that you will be lost and defeated with them. But you must resolutely turn your gaze, the thoughts of your heart, and all your senses away from this picture and look at death closely and untiringly only as seen in those who died in God’s grace and who have overcome death, particularly in Christ and then also in all his saints.

In such pictures death will not appear terrible and gruesome. No, it will seem contemptible and dead, slain and overcome in life. For Christ is nothing other than sheer life, as his saints are likewise. The more profoundly you impress that image upon your heart and gaze upon it, the more the image of death will pale and vanish of itself without struggle or battle. Thus your heart will be at peace and you will be able to die calmly in Christ and with Christ, as we read in Revelation [14:13], “Blessed are they who die in the Lord Christ.” This was foreshown in Exodus 21[Num. 21:6–9], where we hear that when the children of Israel were bitten by fiery serpents they did not struggle with these serpents, but merely had to raise their eyes to the dead bronze serpent and the living ones dropped from them by themselves and perished. Thus you must concern yourself solely with the death of Christ and then you will find life. But if you look at death in any other way, it will kill you with great anxiety and anguish. This is why Christ says, “In the world—that is, in yourselves—you have unrest, but in me you will find peace” [John 16:33]….

[Y]ou must not look at sin in sinners, or in your conscience, or in those who abide in sin to the end and are damned. If you do, you will surely follow them and also be overcome. You must turn your thoughts away from that and look at sin only within the picture of grace. Engrave that picture in yourself with all your power and keep it before your eyes. The picture of grace is nothing else but that of Christ on the cross and of all his dear saints.

How is that to be understood? Grace and mercy are there where Christ on the cross takes your sin from you, bears it for you, and destroys it. To believe this firmly, to keep it before your eyes and not to doubt it, means to view the picture of Christ and to engrave it in yourself. Likewise, all the saints who suffer and die in Christ also bear your sins and suffer and labor for you, as we find it written, “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the command of Christ” [Gal. 6:2]. Christ himself exclaims in Matthew 11[:28], “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will help you.” In this way you may view your sins in safety without tormenting your conscience. Here sins are never sins, for here they are overcome and swallowed up in Christ. He takes your death upon himself and strangles it so that it may not harm you, if you believe that he does it for you and see your death in him and not in yourself. Likewise, he also takes your sins upon himself and overcomes them with his righteousness out of sheer mercy, and if you believe that, your sins will never work you harm. In that way Christ, the picture of life and of grace over against the picture of death and sin, is our consolation. Paul states that in 1 Corinthians 15[:57], “Thanks and praise be to God, who through Christ gives us the victory over sin and death.”…

So then, gaze at the heavenly picture of Christ, who descended into hell [1 Pet. 3:19] for your sake and was forsaken by God as one eternally damned when he spoke the words on the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!”—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Matt. 27:46]. In that picture your hell is defeated and your uncertain election is made sure. If you concern yourself solely with that and believe that it was done for you, you will surely be preserved in this same faith. Never, therefore, let
this be erased from your vision. Seek yourself only in Christ and not in yourself and you will find yourself in him eternally…. He is the living and immortal image against
death, which he suffered, yet by his resurrection from the dead he vanquished death in his life. He is the image of the grace of God against sin, which he assumed, 613b7272dfd5cefc7d4e07ea48712bbdand yet overcame by his perfect obedience. He is the heavenly image, the one who was forsaken by God as damned, yet he conquered hell through his omnipotent love, thereby proving that he is the dearest Son, who gives this to us all if we but believe….

[W]hat more should God do to persuade you to accept death willingly and not to dread but to overcome it? In Christ he offers you the image of life, of grace, and of salvation so that you may not be horrified by the images of sin, death, and hell. Furthermore, he lays your sin, your death, and your hell on his dearest Son, vanquishes them, and renders them harmless for you. In addition, he lets the trials of sin, death, and hell that come to you also assail his Son and teaches you how to preserve yourself in the midst of these and how to make them harmless and bearable. And to relieve you of all doubt, he grants you a sure sign, namely, the holy sacraments. He commands his angels, all saints, all creatures to join him in watching over you, to be concerned about your soul, and to receive it. He commands you to ask him for this and to be assured of fulfillment. What more can or should he do?

From this you can see that he is a true God and that he performs great, right, and divine works for you. Why, then, should he not impose something big upon you (such as dying), as long as he adds to it great benefits, help, and strength, and thereby wants to test the power of his grace. Thus we read in Psalm 111[:2], “Great are the works of the Lord, selected according to his pleasure.” Therefore, we ought to thank him with a joyful heart for showing us such wonderful, rich, and immeasurable grace and mercy against death, hell, and sin, and to laud and love his grace rather than fearing death so greatly. Love and praise make dying very much easier, as God tells us through Isaiah, “For the sake of my praise I restrain it [wrath] for you, that I may not cut you off.” To that end may God help us. Amen.

[Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition, W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 392-402.]

Rediscovering the Scandalous God: Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross (The Heidelberg Disputation of 1518)

Although we think of Luther’s famous 95 theses as sparking the Reformation in 1517, it would perhaps be more accurate to accord this honor to the theses that he prepared for the disputation in Heidelberg in 1518. It was at this event that Luther laid the foundation and set the trajectory for his later reforming work. In the scheme of things, the 95 theses penned in Wittenberg took aim at a fairly narrow set of issues, whereas the theses composed for Heidelberg set forth, in seminal form, Luther’s comprehensive vision for csm_luther_in_heidelberg_6ffae26474the church reformed under the authority of the Word of God. This comprehensive vision can be summed up in Luther’s own phrase theologia crucis — theology of the cross — in contrast to the theologia gloriae — the theology of glory — that he vociferously opposed in medieval scholasticism. It was here, not in the matter of indulgences, but between the theologies of cross and glory, that Luther drew his main line of battle. Stated simply, if we do not understand the theology of the cross, we cannot understand Luther. Speaking personally, I find this aspect of Luther’s teaching to be the most significant, most compelling, and most encouraging of everything that he ever said or wrote.

What is the theologia crucis? Entire books deal exclusively with this subject, so a mere blog post can hardly serve to do it justice. However, I think it is possible to get an adequate, if only cursory, sense of what Luther meant simply by sampling a few of the Heidelberg theses. Beginning with thesis 19, Luther argued:

19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1:20].

This is apparent in the example of those who were “theologians” and still were called fools by the Apostle in Romans 1[:22]. Furthermore, the invisible things of God are virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth. The recognition of all these things does not make one worthy or wise.

20. One deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

The “back” and visible things of God are placed in opposition to the invisible, namely, human nature, weakness, foolishness. The Apostle in 1 Corinthians 1[:25] calls them the weakness and folly of God. Because humans misused the knowledge of God through works, God wished again to be recognized in suffering—to condemn wisdom concerning invisible things by means of wisdom concerning visible things, so that those who did not honor God as manifested in the Divine works should honor God hidden in suffering. As the Apostle says in 1 Corinthians 1[:21], “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does one no good to recognize God in Divine glory and majesty, unless one recognizes God in the humility and shame of the cross. Thus God destroys the wisdom of the wise, as Isaiah [45:15] says, “Truly, thou art a God who hides yourself.”

So, also, in John 14[:8], where Philip spoke according to the theology of glory: “Show us the Father.” Christ forthwith set aside his flighty thought about seeking God elsewhere and led him to himself, saying, “Philip, he who has seen me has seen the Father” [John 14:9]. For this reason, true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ. It is also stated in John 10[14:6]: “No one comes to the Father, but by me.” “I am the door” [John 10:9], and so forth.

21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glow to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” [Phil. 3:18], for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said. Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are destroyed and the old Adam, who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for human beings not to be puffed up by their good works unless they have first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until they know that they are worthless and that their works are not theirs, but God’s.

22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by humans is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.

This has already been said. Because humans do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on. Therefore they become increasingly blinded and hardened by such love, for desire cannot be satisfied by the acquisition of those things which it desires. Just as the love of money grows in proportion to the increase of the money itself, so the dropsy of the soul becomes thirstier the more it drinks, as the poet says: “The more water they drink, the more they thirst for it.” The same thought is expressed in Ecclesiastes 1[:8]: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” This holds true of all desires.

Thus also the desire for knowledge is not satisfied by the acquisition of wisdom but is stimulated that much more. Likewise the desire for glory is not satisfied by the acquisition of glory, nor is the desire to rule satisfied by power and authority, nor is the desire for praise satisfied by praise, and so on, as Christ shows in John 4[:13], where he says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again.”

The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it. In other words, he who wishes to become wise does not seek wisdom by progressing toward it but becomes a fool by retrogressing into seeking folly. Likewise he who wishes to have much power, honor, pleasure, satisfaction in all things must flee rather than seek power, honor, pleasure, and satisfaction in all things. This is the wisdom which is folly to the world.

23. The law brings the wrath of God, kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ [Rom. 4:15].

Thus Galatians 3[:18] states, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law”; and: “For all who rely on works of the law are under the curse” [Gal. 3:10]; and Romans 4:[15]: “For the law brings wrath”; and Romans 7[:10]: “The very commandment which promised life proved to be the death of me”; Romans 2[:12]: “All who have sinned without the law will also perish without law.” Therefore, those who boast that they are wise and learned in the law boast in their confusion, their damnation, the wrath of God, in death. As Romans 2[:23] puts it: “You who boast in the law.”

24. Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross a person misuses the best in the worst manner.

Indeed the law is holy [Rom. 7:12], every gift of God good [1 Tim. 4:4], and everything that is created exceedingly good, as in Genesis 1[:31]. But, as stated above, the one who has not been brought low, reduced to nothing through the cross and suffering, takes credit for works and wisdom and does not give credit to God. Such a person thus misuses and defiles the gifts of God.

Those, however, who have been emptied [Cf. Phil. 2:7] through suffering no longer do works but know that God works and does all things in them. For this reason, whether they do works or not, it is all the same to them. They neither boast if they do good works, nor are they disturbed if God does not do good works through them. They know that it is sufficient if they suffer and are brought low by the cross in order to be annihilated all the more. Christ says this in John 3[:7], “You must be born anew.” To be born anew, one must consequently first die and then be raised up with the Son of Man. To die, I say, means to feel death at hand.[1]

Luther certainly gives us much to chew on and digest here. The theology of the cross is not a theology about the cross (which can often be hijacked and turned into another form of a theology of glory!) but rather a theology through the cross, i.e. formulated from the perspective of Christ crucified as the locus of God’s saving power and revelation. For this reason, it is better, as indicated in the theses themselves, to speak rather of a theologian of the cross, for the theology of the cross simply indicates the point of view that we are forced to assume in relation to all reality on the basis of the scandal and folly of the gospel. The perspective of the cross stains things with the martin-luther-and-frederick-iii-of-saxony-kneeling-before-christ-on-the-cross-german-schoolcrimson color of blood and molds them into a cruciform shape. For this kind of theologian, the cross is more than a religious symbol or mere instrument of salvation, it is the lens through which the entire world is reinterpreted.

Thus, whereas the theologian of glory (i.e. everyone who is not a theologian of the cross!) looks for God in the likeliest places — i.e. where power, glory, and success are visibly seen — the theologian of the cross knows that God actually manifests himself in the unlikeliest and least expected places: in weakness, shame, and defeat. The theologian of glory measures according to standards of strength, greatness, and tangible results, whereas the theologian of the cross is attuned to the ignominy, smallness, and folly with which God reveals and redeems. This is, after all, is precisely what Paul argued in 1 Corinthians 1:20-29:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

There are so many practical implications of this that it would be impossible to enumerate them all. Let me just suggest a couple. First, a theologian of glory can always be found prefacing statements with things like: “…but it doesn’t make sense that…”, “it seems logical that…”, “it’s unthinkable that God would…”, “surely if God had intended that, then…”, etc. To this the theologian of the cross will respond: “Yes, that does make more sense, and it does seem logical that God would act in such and such a way, but Christ crucified has put an end to all that makes logical sense to the worldly wise, and we can only seek to know the ways and works of God in the folly and scandal of the cross.” To use a biblical example, a theologian of glory stands at Golgotha and snides: “he who saved others could not save himself.” The theologian of the cross, on the other hand, looks at Christ crucified and marvels: “truly this is the Son of God!”

Second, a theologian of glory will become easily discouraged when effort is rewarded with failure, when faithfulness is rewarded with fruitlessness, when good is rewarded with suffering. A theologian of the cross, however, will remain unflappable and unmoved even when assailed by the fiercest doubts, even when experiencing the costliest losses, even when consigned to shame or anonymity. This, not because of an innate inner strength, but because the cross has taught its theologians to expect such outcomes. If the supreme display of the power and wisdom of God was the weakness and foolishness of Christ crucified, then we should not be surprised to find his power and wisdom displayed in our own lives in the exact same way.

Luther’s theology of the cross is a salutary reminder that whereas we are usually looking for God to come as a conquering king, we will only find him as a crucified carpenter. When this scandalous truth becomes the focal point through which we view all reality, then (and only then) we will begin to think, reason, pray, work, minister, and live as true followers of Christ.

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[1] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 22-4.

The New Heaven and the New Earth (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 21)

Revelation 21:1-4

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

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(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.144-6. 150. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)

It has been said that the great purpose of God, which begins with creation, narrows down in a fallen world first to the people of Israel and then to the suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, but in Jesus Christ it widens out through the Church, the Israel of God, and at last breaks into a new heaven and new earth. It is the road from the many to the One, and from the One to the many. At its center is the Lamb of God, He who is, who was, and who is to come, gather up in Himself the purpose of the original creation and fulfilling it by redemption in the new creation….

[T]he Kingdom of God is not a realm characterized by heaven only. It is a homely Kingdom with earth in it. Whatever else that may mean it certainly implies a physical existence of created beings, and implies too that eternity will not be a timeless monotone but an eternity with time in the heart of it…. This much, too, is clear that God’s original creation will be fully restored in redemption. It is a redemption, however, that transcends that original creation in glory though it is not divorced from it. The original purpose of love will be more than fulfilled. The Garden of Eden meant that God has made man to have communion with Him in a perfect environment, and that true human life is essentially life in such a perfect environment. Therefore the perfection of the Christian life involves the perfection of earth as well as heaven. The Christian hope is fulfilled only in a new heaven and a new earth peopled with human beings living in holy and loving fellowship with God, with one another, and in harmony with the fulness of creation….

The new heaven and the new earth are the perfect environment, and now St. John tries to describe the perfect form which the Kingdom of God will take…. “Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people….” The language reminds us of the beginning of the Fourth Gospel: “And the Word was made flesh and tabernacled among men, and we beheld his glory, full of glory and truth.” That is the very heart of the eternal Kingdom, God among men in grace and truth, God in intimate fellowship with His children in a life from which evil and pain have been utterly eradicated and which draws its abundance from Jesus Christ….

Who can say all that the Lord has laid up for those who trust Him?… Certainly it is true that the great reward of all who serve Him here is that they shall ever serve Him there, and see His face, and become like Him. He who has seen Christ, has seen the Father, and that vision more than suffices him. The Father whom we shall see yonder is none other than Him whom we see in Jesus. Yonder we shall see Him in fulness of vision which is denied to us here, but it will ever be God as revealed to us in Jesus and no other for there is no other. In the heart of transcendent Deity there will still be One like unto the Son of Man, and the light in which we shall see Him will ever be the light of the Lamb.

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.

The Two Witnesses (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 11)

This post is dedicated to the estimated 90,000 Christians that were martyred in 2016 and who “conquered by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11).

Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, “Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months. And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”…And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified…and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth. But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them. And at that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven. [Revelation 11:1-3, 7-9, 10-13]

(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.70-72)

The Apostle’s vision goes on to show how much the world hates the Truth, for the Word of God is a torment to them. It disturbs them in every aspect of their life. When the Christian Church bears faithful witness to God, there is no department in human life that does not feel its penetrating challenge, no region of human experience that is not disturbed and two-prophets-van-dyckdoes not suffer upheaval. True it is that the Word of God is always a Word of salvation and peace, but so long as the world is unrepentant, the Word of God can only be a torment to it…

John seems to envisage a time when the outer courts of the Church’s witness will be trodden under foot by unbelievers and the Church, itself ravaged and harrowed, will be shrunken to measurable proportions. Its worshippers will be able to live and bear witness only in sackcloth. But that may be the moment of the Church’s supreme power over mankind, for the power of the Church’s proclamation lies in her repentance…[T]he Church which is prepared to eat wormwood, to clothe herself in sackcloth for the sins of the world, and the more terrible sins of the Church…will have power to shut and open heaven to release fountains of living water for all who will to drink. It will have power to send forth the mighty Word of God, to pull down strongholds, and to cast down every imagination that exalts itself against the knowledge of God…

Such a penitent Church, with her prayer kindled by the fire of God, with the mighty Word of God in her mouth, will seize such a grip upon the world that at last the great dragon will be roused from his abysmal lair and seek to destroy her as he tried to destroy her Lord…[Yet] they who suffer with Christ shall reign with Him, and they who share the fellowship of His sufferings shall know the power of His resurrection. For the Church that worships Jesus Christ, the crucified, risen and ascended, there is no other way than the way of the Cross in penitence and humiliation. It is the way to the glory of the God of Heaven and to supreme joy for all mankind.

Under the Fearful Cross: John Knox and the Cost of Reformission

Anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time will already be familiar with the concept of reformission. It is, of course, the overriding theme of all that I write about here at Reformissio. The idea of reformission is not original to me, but I have tried (and am trying) to develop it further. Succinctly stated, reformission is short for “reformation as mission”. That is to say, reformation is the form that Christian mission takes in places where the church exists but in a form that neglects or distorts or forgets the centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ. One of the reformissionaries of history that, for all his faults, I greatly admire is the Scottish Reformer John Knox (how could you not admire someone with a beard like that?). Having had the opportunity to finish reading Jane Dawson’s excellent biography 10175732754_57a7c8e5c0_o-e1416850534624of Knox during the holiday season, I was struck by a number of the fascinating aspects of his life and mission that she recounts, some of which I hope to share in the days ahead.

For my first post of this new year (which incidentally is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation!), it seems opportune to share one particular section in which Dawson recounts the great risks and fears that Knox had to face and overcome in order to carry out his vocation as a reformissionary. To set the stage for what follows, we need to remember that Knox had been compelled to leave his native Scotland and spend time among the English exiles in Geneva, Switzerland. Although seeming like a setback for his work in Scotland, it was in Geneva that Knox was able to formulate, under the tutelage of John Calvin, a strategy for promoting the Scottish Reformation. It was also in Geneva that Knox found the courage to return to his homeland, even though it meant persecution and possibly even martyrdom “under the fearful cross of Christ”. Dawson writes:

[While in Geneva] Knox had direct access to the most experienced team in Europe with expertise in cultivating an underground Protestant church. Over the previous decade Geneva had acted as the motor engine of French Reformed Church. Its large and expanding population of French exiles turned the city into a printing centre, despatching French books; a training camp for clergy to be sent back into the field; and a communications hub for the intelligence network that kept in touch with the French Protestant communities, or Huguenots as they were known. The Genevan pastors would have briefed Knox on what to do, what information to collect and which types of contacts to make in Scotland. Like later resistance fighters, he was being sent into occupied territory and would be working with a network of cells. The French were experts at this type of mission: how to proselytize and survive amid persecution. Although the Scottish Regent’s regime had a much lighter touch than the royal government in France, Knox remained a wanted man. Shortly after he had left Scotland he had been condemned in his absence as a heretic and his effigy had been burned at the market cross in Edinburgh in July 1556. If he were arrested on his return he might be executed without further trial and even denied the public witness [that his personal hero and mentor] Wishart’s death had achieved.

Although Knox had previously faced the possibility of having to die for his faith, in 1557 the odds had lengthened against a safe return. With details from the English persecution fresh in his mind, he wrestled with the prospect of his own execution. In a letter probably written in March 1557, he countered the accusation of cowardice, that “my fleing the contrey declaireth my feir’. Though addressed to Janet Henderson, Knox was talking to himself not her when he wrote about the fear ‘of the death temporall’. He argued that, since everyone had to die, it was a great opportunity ‘to be Chrystis witnes’ in death and for the price of momentary suffering gain eternal life and joy.

Yf we knew, I say, what comfort lyeth hid under the feirfull cross of Chryst, we wald not be sa slak to take up the same. Yf we knew that lyfe is bureit with Chryst in his grave, we wald not feir to ga and seik him in the same. We prais and extoll the martiris and sanctis whilk by affleictionis hath overcum this warld, and yit we having the same occasioun offirit, do flie frome the battell.

Towards the end of the letter he mentioned ‘my awin motioun and daylie prayer is, not onlie that I may visit you, but also with joy I may end my battell amangis yow’…

A farewell party was held for Knox’s family and friends on the night before he left Geneva in September 1557 and there was hardly a dry eye as they prepared to send him on his way…For the Genevan Company of Pastors farewells had become routine as they sent another trained cleric to minister to a newly formed congregation in France. With the list of French martyrs growing each year, everyone in Geneva appreciated the high risks of being sent to serve a church ‘under the cross’. Knox was part of an international effort to spread the Reformed faith and he was particularly conscious of his solidarity with his Huguenot brethren.[1]

By way of conclusion, I would simply like to add a few thoughts of my own. First, Dawson makes clear that the notion that the Reformers were not interested or engaged in mission and evangelism is erroneous. Under Calvin’s leadership, Geneva trained numerous pastors (reformissionaries!) and sent them into occupied territory in France to further the Protestant faith by evangelizing and planting churches. Second, this task of reformission in France was a highly dangerous, and many of the people sent from Geneva for this purpose paid with their lives. Knox himself was to discover this as he planned to return to his own country where he was considered a heretic worthy of death. Yet, third and finally, though Knox struggled mightily with the prospect of martyrdom (and he did struggle!), he ultimately realized that however “fearful” may it be to labor “under…the cross of Christ”, great “comfort” lay hidden there. Knox knew that whatever tears might be shed in the calling to reformission, the joy to be found in obedience to Christ would far outstrip the sorrow. For this reason, Knox steeled himself for his return, determined that he would not “fly from the battle” but would endure to the end in the effort to reclaim the land of his birth for Christ.

At the beginning of this year marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Knox’s example gives me great encouragement, and it inflames my heart to devote greater energy, passion, and commitment to the work of reformission still to be done where I live in Italy, whatever the cost may be. I hope that it does the same for you, wherever you have been called into the service of the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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[1] Jane Dawson, John Knox. (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2015), pp. 129-132

John Knox and the Unstoppable Power of a Fragile Weakness

My family and I are currently listening to the audiobook version of The Mighty Weakness of John Knox, a didactic biography written by Douglas Bond. The title of this book is indeed striking: the mighty weakness of John Knox. It is striking because Knox towers like a giant over Scottish history. Although not uncontroversial (both then and now!), he was undoubtedly the principal actor in the drama of Scotland’s Reformation, confronting kings, queens, bishops. and a host of other powerful forces with the gospel of Jesus Christ. What is surprising, therefore, is the incredible weakness that beset Knox mightyweaknessofjohnknox-temp_2011-01-31-1throughout his whole life: weakness of body as well as of soul. How could such a weak individual accomplish such mighty feats? As Douglas Bond makes clear, it is precisely Knox’s weakness that accounted for his might, for it caused him to throw himself wholly upon the grace of God that is made perfect in human frailty. Bond writes:

From the first page to the last of Knox’s written works, the reader is brought relentlessly back to the source of Knox’s greatness: Christ was at the center of every dimension of his life. It is this, and this alone, that made Knox mighty in his weakness. Peel back the layers and read between the lines – there is never a hint of false modesty in the man; his statements about himself, good or bad, are corroborated by those closest to him. His was an age when one did not admit weakness; devouring lions crouched in wait to crush weak men. Yet Knox unabashedly admitted his fears: “I quake, I fear, and tremble.” It was that honest admission of his frailty, and his corresponding reliance on Christ, that gave him such force against the enemies of the gospel. He was not posturing when he admitted his fears. Because he knew himself to be a man of inherent weakness, and because he was an honest, humble man, he could say without pretext, “I sought neither preeminence, glory, nor riches; my honor was that Christ Jesus should reign.”…

We’re tempted to detach from a man like Knox, to shuffle him off into irrelevant oblivion because his circumstances were so different from ours. Weren’t his battles more manageable because his calling was so high and mighty, and because his life was so glamorous? After all, he wielded a real broadsword, endured a castle siege, and survived slavery in a French galley; he had audiences with a queen and preached before a king; he contended with the powerful and influential in the realm, dodged the bullets of assassins, and steered the ship of Reformation for an entire nation…Bear in mind that these glamorous adventures nearly killed Knox; they did ruin his health, and he was forced to endure life in almost constant physical pain. Such glamour maybe overrated. Furthermore, unlike many of our conflicts and woes, Knox’s battles had multiple fronts: queens, envious bishops, vacillating nobles, dubious allies, the cannons of the French, and lone assassins, all amid near-constant headaches, burning fever, and gut-wrenching illness. In a letter to John Calvin, Knox wrote, “I am prevented from writing to you more amply by a fever which afflicts me, by the weight of labors which oppress me, and the cannon of the French which they have now brought over to crush us.” Nevertheless, Knox concluded his letter to Calvin with confidence in God: “He whose cause we defend will come to the aid of his own.” Knox was mighty in spiritual warfare because his life was subdued by his Champion, King Jesus, who, true to His promises, subdues all His enemies…

Preaching Christ at St. Giles Edinburgh, contending with monarchs and weak-willed nobles, Knox tirelessly distributed “the bread of life as of Christ Jesus I had received it” until his last sermon, preached November 9, 1572. Too weak to walk, he was carried to and from his pulpit at St. Giles. Pain was nothing new to Knox; he had lived most of his life with it. Nevertheless, he wrote: “The pain of my head and stomach troubles me greatly; daily I find my body decay. Unless my pain cease, I will become unprofitable.” In the excruciating days that followed, friends and supporters gathered at his bedside. “The time is approaching,” he told them, “for which I have long thirsted, wherein I shall be relieved of all cares, and be with my Savior Christ forever.”

He was correct. Monday, November 24, 1572…he sighed deeply and said: “Now it is come. Come, Lord Jesus, sweet Jesus; into thy hand I commend my spirit.”…Two days later, Knox’s body was laid to rest on the south side of St. Giles (at the time of this writing, under parking stall number twenty-three). From commoner to nobility, a vast crowd filled the streets of Edinburgh to pay their respects. The earl of Morton, the regent, is variously quoted as saying at his grave, “There lies one who in his life never feared the face of man.” As if to aid timorous Christians through the centuries, Knox’s fellow minister, Thomas Smeaton, eulogized him by pointing to God’s gracious activity on display: “I know not if God ever placed a more godly and great spirit in a body so little and frail.” Any Christian who has ever felt little and frail can take heart from God’s gracious work in the life and ministry of Knox.[1]

Like Bond, I too take heart in reading about the life and ministry of John Knox, not because I admire his innate strength and ability, as though his sufficiency were of himself, but rather because his sufficiency was from God (2 Cor. 3:4). Knox was a powerful embodiment of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:7-10:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

As in Knox’s day, so too in our own do ‘devouring lions crouch to crush weak men’. Our temptation is always to hide our weakness and frailty with fig leaves of false bravery and strength. We have much to learn from Knox, namely, that when we cast ourselves utterly upon the power and grace of God in Christ, then we discover that it is in our weakness that we are strong, that it is in our frailty that we are firm, that it is in our fear that we find our courage.

Perhaps if there were more weak and fragile people like John Knox, the world would witness an unprecedented downfall of the mighty powers that set themselves in opposition to the kingdom of God.

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[1] Douglas Bond, 2011. The Mighty Weakness of John Knox. Lake Mary: Reformation Trust Publishing, (Kindle Locations 294-362). Kindle Edition.