Given for the Saints at Medicalodge, Neosho, MO, Feb. 15, 2004
"If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire" (I Cor. 3:15, RSV.
As the lengthy title indicates, there have been many triggers for this writing. My thanks to Jeri Fox for providing me with a copy of Queen of the Reformation, by Charles Ludwig. It is the biography of Katherine von Bora, the woman, who inspired by Dr. Martin Luther's tracts, had the courage to escape from the nunnery where her jealous stepmother had placed her. She later married "the wild boar of Wittenberg," as Luther was called. He dubbed her, "Queen of the Reformation," declaring that without her, he could not have continued the fight he began with his astounding and heretical statement, "The just shall live by faith," not penance.
Before reading the book, I knew little about Luther's actual life, and was only aware of his conclusion that we are justified by faith, and that he defied the Pope by nailing his 95 theses on the door of Castle Church. Those of us brought up with freedom of speech have no real inkling of how rash a move this was. To put it in perspective, the penalty for such rebellion was death by burning at the stake. Ludwig states in his Preface that John Wycliffe escaped the stake by suffering a fatal stroke, but 44 years after his demise, "his remains were unearthed, burned, and his ashes scattered in the river Swift." His contemporary John Huss died in the flames of a stake in 1415, for the crime of agreeing with Wycliffe (English religious reformer and bible translator). Luther lived most of his life under the shadow of the papal bull which condemned him to death. The book is now out of print, but I saw it at Amazon.com, or perhaps you could find it at the public library. It is a very good read. I couldn't put it down.
What has this to do with us today you may wonder. That brings me to the second trigger for this writing. I'm also indebted to Harry and Jeri Fox for sharing with us a writing by Paul Toscano, a Mormon dissident who was excommunicated from the Mormon Church in 1993. His article, entitled, "An Interview With Myself" appeared in the December, 2003, issue of the Sunstone Publication. In the following paragraph, you can see for yourself why an authoritarian, legalistic, hierarchical religion could not tolerate his brilliantly expressed opinions.
Of the Mormon Church, he said, "It has become an arch conservative culture built on the sand of family and tribal values, with respectability as its chief cornerstone. Its adherents are less like living stones in the mystical temple of God and more like living stiffs in a morgue of quiet conformity: Members are relentlessly pressured to strain at gnats by avoiding alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, facial hair, tattoos, body piercing, R-rated movies, public displays of affection, nudity, erotica, masturbation, necking, petting, premarital sex, disrespect or questioning of authority, dissent, and anger, while being constantly encouraged to swallow camels by tolerating elitism, racism, misogyny; lack of intimacy, homophobia, xenophobia, moral superiority, purification by exclusion, institutional secrecy, theological correctness, spiritual abuse, class discrimination, disdain for civil liberties, and the abdication of personal judgment and responsibility. Mormonism, I fear, is no longer a mystery It is a machine" End Quote. Lest you think I'm picking on the Mormons, let me suggest that his comments could apply to a great many religious institutions today, including Islam.
One of his most telling indictments declares that, "Faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost are rivaled by obedience, respectability, denial, and sycophancy. The Church is no longer seen as the object of salvation, but its source." To the degree that a religious institution sees itself as the be all and the end all, it fits his description. I know Christians who never quantify their conversion experience as being saved, but rather characterize it as becoming "members of the church." It's as though the church itself is the end result, rather than it being the living, actual body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, a living organism sustained by her relationship to Him. I believe this is true of us individually as well as corporately, and in fact, I submit that you cannot have a relationship with a church, but only with the members thereof, who are all in relationship together with Christ, the head of the body. People who prattle on about "my church this and my church that," have failed to see the living organism, and have focused on what usually turns out to be a building where people meet, worship according to denominational guidelines, and plan, often by committee, how to best forward the work of the church. I love the statement that's been around for awhile, but still true, "God so loved the world that He did NOT send a committee."
A friend sent us a wonderful commentary on this subject called "The Awakening," by John Stolwyck. I sent it out to my e-mail list because I think it sums up well the difference between religion and life in the Spirit. He observed, "Contrary to present beliefs, when we 'became' Christians, we did not receive Jesus 'into our life,' but we received him 'as our life.' One is improvement; the other is replacement. James tells us to receive with meekness the already implanted word. It takes meekness to receive the righteousness of God through Christ. If we think we are trying to improve on our former life, we will be robbed of living in His Life. Paul said, "...it is no longer I that lives, but Christ lives in me... the life which I now live I live by the faith of the son of God..." (Gal. 2:20). It takes faith to believe that His life is already in you." End Quote.
When we become Christians, Christ dwells in us by faith, and it is His faith, not ours, which sees us through (Eph. 2:8). Many are struggling to "do for Christ," and Luther was by his own admission a champion of works. He fasted, denied himself sleep, only wore what was necessary for decency in the coldest weather, in an attempt to do penance for his fleshly foibles. None of us, I doubt, can equal his record for self denial and prostrating himself before the authority of church doctrine.
Many people, including myself, have been set free from fear by realizing the words "forever" and "hell" are translation errors. Likewise, Luther was set free from the treadmill of works with the discovery by Erasmus, a contemporary theologian, of a huge translation error in the Vulgate, which was "a Latin version of the Bible prepared chiefly by Saint Jerome at the end of the 4th century A.D. and used as an authorized version of the Roman Catholic church." The error was found in Matt. 4:17: "From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand"" (RSV). Jerome had translated the word "repent" as "do penance." Erasmus discovered that the real meaning of the word is "change your mind." From that scholar's efforts, came mighty results when Luther began to ponder the inconsistencies he found.
In his time, believers, even the most devout ones considered themselves mere worms compared to the righteousness and majesty of God. Luther was a scholar and a teacher, and when he was preparing a lecture on Psalm 31, he was puzzled by the Latin phrase which was translated, "In thy righteousness deliver me." He couldn't understand what those words might mean, for he reasoned, "How can I, made of dust, avail myself of the righteousness of God? It seemed impossible." Then he found a similar phrase in Psalm 71:2: "Deliver me in thy righteousness." Again, he was confused because it didn't fit with what he had been taught and what he was now teaching. It was two more years before the truth of Romans 1:17 jumped off the page at him: "For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith" (KJV). Luther was a man after my own heart. He couldn't keep his mouth shut. He never intended to start a revolution, but it enraged him to the max that the church was making money by selling Indulgences.
It was a sure fire way to raise money, and Pope Leo X "felt that he needed rivers and then oceans full of money." So he devised a scheme whereby he could raise enough money to finish St. Peter's. He sold offices in the church, and when one cleric was unable to repay the bank loan he had taken out to buy his office of Archbishop, the Pope authorized him to sell Indulgences and use the proceeds to pay off his debt. He, in turn, hired John Tetzel, a Dominican priest to do the selling. This super salesman would go into a village, terrify them with tales of purgatory so vivid that they could see the smoke, smell the flesh burning, and hear the cries of the damned. When he had whipped them into a frenzy, he offered to sell them an Indulgence, which, depending on the amount of it, would either get them off to Paradise immediately or at least shorten their stay in torment.
The Indulgences date back to the Crusades, where Muslims had an advantage, because they were taught that if they died in a holy war, their souls would go immediately to Paradise. The suicide bombers in the Middle East still operate under that premise. That put the Crusaders in a bind. They feared death "because they faced millions of years in the cleansing torments of purgatory." This rationale is still used to get the terrified flock up front at the altar call. The popes solved the problem in the 11th century by decreeing that "all Christians who fell in battle while fighting Muslims automatically had all their sins forgiven and would thus escape purgatory." Unfortunately, many Christians were too physically inept, infirm, or female to go to war, but the clever popes solved this problem by granting an Indulgence to anyone "who gave enough money to support a Crusader!"
Incensed by this selling of salvation, on Oct. 31, 1517, the Eve of All Saints Day, Luther tacked his 95 theses on the door of Castle Church. He chose that date because all the peasants would be coming in for the celebration on the following day. He only meant to stir up a lively debate, not set the known world on fire, but that's what happened. He lived the rest of his life under the threat of death by burning, but his answer to all needs was, "The Lord will provide."
Some religions practice shunning, meaning that they totally ignore the person who has defied the rules, treating him or her like they never existed. This is an emotional death sentence and has the powerful psychological effect in keeping the flock in line. Even when they don't call it shunning, many churches disfellowship those who dare to speak against either the church doctrine or the powers that be.
By far the worst of these punishments is the "Left Behind" scenario of the Rapture theory. Last week, "60 minutes" had a segment about the Christian Right's political agenda (See link to the article at end). They introduced Dr. Tim LaHaye, who wrote the best selling, purposefully frightening, "Left Behind" series. It's about the second coming of Christ and what happens when Christians get sucked off the planet without their clothes (that's what they said), leaving everyone else behind to turn and burn. Morley Safer, a Jew, who did the interview, asked with a smile in his eyes, "So, I would be left behind?" The spokesman he was interviewing replied seriously, "That's what the Bible says." Turns out, this was his reply to most of Morley's questions about what will happen during the Rapture to those who don't make the cut.
The first three punishments, burned at the stake, excommunicated, and shunned, are man's inhumanity to man, but the left behind one is even more horrible for it has to do with a vengeance wreaking, fire breathing, catastrophic, divinely ordained event in which those who have kept the faith (evangelical Christians mostly), will be whisked off to glory where they'll have a front row view of the death and destruction unleashed upon the earth. Morley asked again, "So, I can expect to suffer a hell on earth, and after that even worse?" You guessed it, the man replied solemnly, "That's what the bible says." "60 Minutes" quoted an evangelical pastor as saying that they have become a "righteous army," which uses the ballot box rather than a sword to spread their version of the gospel. These do-gooding folks are living by law, modern day Pharisees, and like the popes of old, are still selling Indulgences (works mostly) to save people from the flames of hell after they die, still using fear of eternal hell fire as a way to get compliance, to raise money for their religious projects, and to maintain political control. A vote for an evangelical political candidate is a vote for God, has long been their inference.
One of Luther's Theses asked Pope Leo X why he had to sell Indulgences to raise money to complete St. Peters. Why didn't he use his own money? (The Pope was rich). So, I was thinking about the Theses that many of us are writing today and posting on the Internet, declarations of God's grace and mercy and unconditional love to all mankind, and how fortunate we are to live in a country where we can say what we believe without fear of being burned at the stake. Obviously, we can still be excommunicated as Paul Toscano's story proves, and we probably will be shunned by fire breathing folks of a different persuasion, but still, we can say it if that's what God puts on our hearts, knowing that we will never, no never be left behind, nor will anyone else, thanks be to our Lord Jesus Christ!
God's Glorious Gospel is based not upon our works, or our choices, but upon His unilateral promise to Abraham that in his seed would all nations be blessed (Gal. 3:8, 16). When we put conditions upon salvation, we are really saying that God's ability to perform is limited to man's ability to obey. Luther had 95 Theses, and I would like to add a few more to be tacked up to the church door: 1) IF the Bible is true, and IF God is NOT willing for any to perish, but wants all to come to repentance, then why do you say He will leave billions of His children behind to perish in the flames? Is He so weak and faithless that He will fail to accomplish His will? (See II Pet. 3:9; Isa 55:11; Matt. 15:6.) 2) IF you believe the bible is true, which says that He paid the price for the sins of the whole world (I John 2:2), why do you limit salvation to only those who believe as you do? 3) And if you go into all the world to spread God's love and freedom from sin, why do you lay so many rules on the converts that they end up bound even tighter by law and fear than they were before you came?
Father, open our eyes to see the truth of the gospel, shining in the face of Jesus Christ. Open our mouths to speak peace to the heathen where ever they be found, in the pews or out of them, for only Your unconditional love will douse the flames of hate, suspicion, and darkness in the hearts of men who make rules to keep anyone from your bosom. Amen. Jan Antonsson
Editor's note: The music on this page is "A mighty fortress is our God," words written by Martin Luther. Also, if you would like to read the entire speech by Paul Toscano, let me know and I'll e-mail it to you.
Jan and Lenny Antonsson
17178 Highway 59, Neosho, MO 64850 (Snail Mail)
"60 Minutes" piece on Evangelical Christians
The Glory Road
We always enjoy hearing from you!
This page was uploaded to the web on 2/11/04
by Jan Antonsson, Webmeister,
and last edited on 10/18/08.