Tigers exist, butterflies exist, mountains exist, forests exist, music exists, humans exist, the solas exist, everything ultimately exists for the glory of God alone.
The drama of the Protestant Reformation casts big personalities and major characters, the types of men now etched into myths, legends, and giant stone figures. But the Reformation is also the story of everyday, ordinary followers of Christ, mostly forgotten, who lived out Reformation theology on the ground — and who paid the price for it with their lives. Martyrs like Hellen Stirke.Mary’s Equal
Hellen was a fairly average Scottish Christian in the city of Perth, dedicated to daily domestic work as a wife and mother. Her life remained unnoticed to history until the birth of her last child in 1544.
When the time arrived for Hellen’s labor and delivery, Catholic tradition called for earnest prayers to the Virgin Mary. Having a good sense of Scripture, Hellen repudiated these petitions. It was a tradition she would not follow. Her baffled midwives pressed her to make such a prayer, but she refused the ritual. The physical risk was real, but the prayers were nothing more than superstitious insurance.
“If I had lived in the days of the Virgin,” Hellen said with poise, “God might have looked likewise to my humility and base estate, as he did the Virgin’s, and might have made me the mother of Christ.” Her childbed sermonette must have triggered gasps. But Hellen was settled and comforted by her theology, knowing her prayers were going directly to God through her Savior Jesus Christ.“I Will Not Bid You Good Night”
News of Hellen’s refusal to pray to Mary, and her bold claim that she was on equal standing before God, very soon found its way to the ears of the local Catholic clergy and quickly up the chain to the presiding cardinal. His response was swift to snuff out this spark of Protestant theology. Before long, Hellen was arrested and imprisoned, along with her husband and four other outspoken Protestants in the city. The small group was soon found guilty of “heresy” and sentenced to death. The following day, soldiers brought Hellen, her husband, and the condemned Protestants to the gallows.
Hellen asked to die side by side with her husband, James Finlason, but her request was denied. Men were to be hanged, women drowned, and James would go first. Holding her young child in her arms, Hellen approached her husband, kissed him, and gave him these parting words:
“Husband, be glad, for we have lived together many joyful days, and this day, in which we must die, we ought to esteem the most joyful of all, because we shall have joy forever. Therefore I will not bid you good night, for we shall shortly meet in the kingdom of heaven.”
James was hanged before her eyes. His life on earth done, eyes fell to Hellen, who was forced to hand her newborn to a nurse entrusted with the child’s care from this point. The authorities led Hellen to a nearby pond, bound her hands and feet, put her into a large gunnysack along with stones or weights, and threw her into the water like a bag of garbage. All for the crime of “blaspheming the Virgin Mary.”A Cloud of Ordinary Witnesses
Heaven has all the details, but this is all we know of Hellen’s life. She was a bold woman made strong by Scripture. Her birthbed claim, that she was equally qualified to mother Jesus, was a radical ceremonial insubordination — but at the heart it was an act of faith, rendering the strata of all human superiority irrelevant in the presence of Christ’s supremacy.
Look deeper into the Reformation, and you will see that it’s more than printing presses and theses nailed to doors and theological debates. It’s the story of ordinary believers, husbands and wives and fathers and mothers, poised in the words of Scripture, reclaiming the primacy of Jesus Christ for their lives, their marriages, their families, and their eternal hopes, who stand as a cloud of witnesses calling us to do likewise. They call us to hold our biblical convictions without wavering, to enjoy God’s earthly blessings, and to endure all momentary afflictions now for the great eternal joy set before us.
Queso at Chipotle. What a time to be alive. So reads the new billboard not far from our house.
This October is quite the time to be alive, even if the new menu item at our beloved Mexican grill is not really one of the reasons why.
For those of us who embrace the moniker Protestant, and have some faint sense of the history that made such a wonderful reality necessary and possible, we have the privilege of being alive to mark this 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Right? It may have seemed exciting from a distance, but now that we’re here, will October come and go with us feeling mildly dissatisfied?
As we have been telling the stories of 31 reformers this month through the Here We Stand series, we’ve discovered one insight — one “secret” — one timeless lesson that made this all possible 500 years ago, and makes it real every waking day of our twenty-first-century lives. One powerful thread unites these men and women as much as any other and is at the very heart of the Reformation: a personal encounter with God himself in his word.
Before there could be Reformation in the church, and Reformation in the world, first there had to be reformation in the soul. How did that begin for Martin Luther, and for the many who stood with him? It came, time and time again, through gaining access to his living and active word, and there meeting God himself.Four-Runners — to a Man
Long before Luther himself came on the scene, the common thread ran through the four pre-Reformation figures. What changed John Wycliffe? He “applied himself rigorously to the study of theology and Scripture. As he did, he realized how much the church had veered off in so many wrong directions.” So also for Peter Waldo. His personal reformation, dramatic as it was, revolved around access to Scripture:
The first thing he resolved was to read the Bible. But since it only existed in the Latin Vulgate, and his Latin was poor, he hired two scholars to translate it into the vernacular so he could study it. Next, he sought spiritual counsel from a priest, who pointed him to the rich young ruler in the Gospels and quoted Jesus: “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). Jesus’s words pierced Waldo’s heart.
Jan Hus lived a similar story: “As Hus read Scripture and watched the popes of his day abuse their power, he concluded that papal authority was not ultimate. He needed a sturdier foundation than was built from the straw and sticks of men’s opinion — no matter how highly regarded those men were. He built his life and ministry on the word of God.” And for Savonarola, it wasn’t only access to God’s word, but literally taking it to heart: “As a young friar, he soaked deeply in the writings of Thomas Aquinas and in Scripture, quickly demonstrating a capacious mind, which allowed him to commit most of Scripture to memory.”Priests and Humanists Paved the Way
As we move from the forerunners into Luther’s own day, we find that those who led the Reformation were largely priests and humanists. Why humanists? Ironically, their fresh optimism about the capabilities of humanity not only made them willing to lay aside the weight of tradition and think for themselves, but their learning and study of the classics enabled them to read the Scriptures for themselves. In the sixteenth century, it was the priests and the humanists who had access to God’s word. They were the ones who could experience personal reformation as they came into contact with God’s word, and they, then, were the ones who emerged as leaders in the fledgling movement.
Erasmus, of course, was the paragon of humanism, and many of the reformers admired his learning, or even worked with him. Wolfgang Capito “was trained as a Christian humanist, becoming a student and a close friend of Erasmus. As a humanist, he loved the biblical text and biblical languages . . . .” And John Oecolampadius, as “one of the rising tribe of humanist scholars, thoroughly trained in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew,” even “worked as an assistant to Erasmus — the project being Erasmus’s first edition of the Greek New Testament, for which John wrote the epilogue.”
Luther’s longtime sidekick, Philip Melanchthon, was trained as a humanist, and William Farel, who led reforms in Geneva and famously recruited Calvin to the city, had “encountered the humanist scholar Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, a man whose devotion to Christ inspired Farel.” But what, in particular, catalyzed Farel’s personal reformation? “He studied Scripture over several years.” And so it was with the Italian humanist Peter Martyr Vermigli.
However, Menno Simons — like Luther and the other Martin, Bucer — came into contract with Scripture not in the academy but the priesthood. He had been “a Catholic priest who had never read the Bible.” In fact, he “had never read the Scriptures themselves.” He said, “I had not touched them during my life, for I feared if I should read them they would mislead me.” Then everything changed when he finally took up the Book and “reluctantly began to study the Bible.”Luther, Calvin, Zwingli
And when we come to what we might call “the big three,” we find the same story: personal contact with God’s word. What changed John Calvin? He “saw and tasted in Scripture the majesty of God.” And for Huldrich Zwingli? He “had been an ardent student of the Greek New Testament recently compiled by Erasmus of Rotterdam. Now in Zurich, Zwingli spent six years preaching straight through the New Testament.”
And finally, brother Martin. “Luther set to work reading, studying, and teaching Scripture from the original languages.” And specifically, in his own words: “At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words.” What effect, then, did it have in his ministry? “The record bears witness to how utterly devoted he was to the preaching of Scripture.” According to John Piper, “Luther had one weapon with which to rescue this gospel from being sold in the markets of Wittenberg — Scripture. He drove out the moneychangers — the indulgence sellers — with the whip of the word of God, the Bible.”Smell the Word
In 1545, a year before he died, Luther wrote, “Let the man who would hear God speak, read Holy Scripture.” Yes, this is the legacy of the Reformation. Among other things, yes, but don’t let this one thing be lost. God speaks to his people in the Book. Here is where we know him, here is where we hear his voice, here is where his Spirit works in us internally and subjectively to bring to life his external, objective word in the Scripture. Here is where we hear God — but not just hear. We taste. We see. We feel. And as Hugh Latimer testified about his life-changing personal encounter with God’s own word, we even smell. “I began to smell the Word of God, and forsook the school doctors and such fooleries.”
The one insight and secret I’m taking away from this 500th-anniversary month is the essential gift knowing God personally through his word, and making the most of the many media we have today for accessing God himself in his word. As we peer back at the Reformation through all the layers and legends, through all the dust and debris of history, might this one ray of light catch our eye, pierce through the portals of time, and land with earthshaking significance in our own day?
The secret to reformation in 1517, and still in 2017, is the people of God meeting personally with him through his very words. That simple formula is strong enough today to reform any heart, any church, any neighborhood, and any nation.
Tigers exist, butterflies exist, mountains exist, forests exist, music exists, humans exist, the solas exist, everything ultimately exists for the glory of God alone.
Deep, humble dependence on God gives way to labor, industry, and productivity that can change the world.
Hans Gooseflesh came of age at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when the prevailing spirit of the age was “God must be angry.” His parents and grandparents were the generation that watched the Black Death eliminate a third of the continent’s population. In some European villages as many as sixty percent of the people perished.
He was born into an upper-class family. Dad was a goldsmith — “Companion of the Mint” they called him — a maker of coins and medallions. As he roamed around his father’s shop as a boy, he no doubt marveled at and probably even assisted in the process of striking coins. Molten metal was poured into molds (imagine tiny cake pans with scripts and images already debossed in the pans). The mold was made from a die strong enough to punch a clean impression of the coin onto it. The die itself was meticulously engraved by hand into tempered steel by craftsmen using sharp jeweler-like tools capable of removing steel from steel as easily as shaving a butter pat from the stick.Failed Start-Up
Alas, Hans was not to inherit the family business. An uprising of guildsmen against the employers, which included Hans’s father, caused the family to relocate to Eltville. So, Hans needed to seek other job opportunities.
In the wake of the plague’s devastation, Roman Catholicism fostered an extraordinary consumer market in religious goods and services. Beyond the peddling of everyday rosaries, tokens, icons, and crucifixes to supply the faithful and penitent, a booming tourist industry emerged attracting hundreds of thousands of Catholic pilgrims eager to see relics recovered from the Holy Land.
An Ox Eye was a badge with a mirror on it that you could wear when visiting displayed relics. The idea was if the mirror on the badge caught the reflection of a relic, well, how couldn’t you be blessed? The Cathedral of Aachen housed four so-called Great Relics then, and still does: Mary’s cloak, Christ’s swaddling clothes, St. John’s beheading cloth, and Christ’s loincloth.
Hans Gooseflesh formed a start-up aimed at cornering the market for Ox Eyes at the 1439 Aachen pilgrimage, projected to draw more than 100,000 pilgrims. Leveraging his expertise in coin-making, he planned to mass produce 32,000 Ox Eyes and make a 2,500-percent profit on the venture. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a bad attendance year. The venture failed. Hans and his investors lost their shirts. But in the process of engineering Ox Eye production they created some significant intellectual property.Lemons into Books
Knowledge transfer was shifting from oral transmission to inscribed manuals, directories, stories, and histories. People wanted books. Most of the demand was supplied by copyists and scribes who, when working earnestly, might be able to knock out a single — and we do mean single — volume of a Bible commentary once every five years. The innovation of woodblock printing helped the uptake of book supply, but woodblocks were unforgiving to error, easily breakable, and limited to a single use.
Hans Gooseflesh made lemonade from the lemon of his failed Ox Eye start-up. In the process of figuring out how to make souvenirs for the Aachen pilgrims, he conceived of a method of building forms into which a collection of metal characters could be racked to create, if you will, a “metalblock” rather than a woodblock that could be used to print sharp, readable words on a page, and then be un-racked, re-ordered, and reused to create new forms for entirely different projects. It was a variation of the die, mold, and punch-making of his childhood performed in miniature to muster legions of metal mercenaries perpetually ready for redeployment.History Reset
Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (anglicized here as “Hans Gooseflesh”) was dead fifty years before Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door. He never preached a sermon. Never authored a theological treatise. Indeed, Hans Gooseflesh, apart from his eponymous Gutenberg Bible, did a banner business in printing papal indulgences. He was a Reformer only by accident — or, better, by common grace. But the printing industry’s quick standardization to Gutenberg’s system of movable type created a production and distribution capability that enabled Luther’s titles to occupy thirty percent of an unheard of seven million–book market in Germany between 1518 and 1525.
The Chinese had invented moveable type seven centuries before, but their writing system was too complex to make use of it. The Muslim world resisted the use of printing for four hundred years after the invention of moveable type. So, in one unique window of human history, God raised up a ne’er-do-well tchotchke-maker to pave the way for a spiritually tortured monk, and his successors, to reclaim the word of God and reset the history of redemption.
For more on Johannes Gutenberg:
Johann Gutenberg: The Man and His Invention by Douglas Martin and Albert Kapr
Johannes Gutenberg: Printing Press Innovator by Sue Vander Hook
We all know boundaries are vital for healthy relationships, and especially for dating relationships. Even if you’ve been prone to cross the lines you’ve drawn in the past, you can admit that lines need to be drawn between the not yet married. We may never be more vulnerable in our lives than when we begin to share ourselves with a new boyfriend or girlfriend — slowly and carefully and intentionally opening our hearts and minds and schedules and dreams to someone else. If we ignore the risks we take, love will end up hurting more than it has to.
Likely you can list the typical Christian boundaries:
What kind of touching is allowed?
Will we spend any time together alone?
How late should we hang out?
Holding hands, basements, curfews, group dates, hugging, kissing — these are the common flashpoints for Christian dating. But far fewer are talking about one major set of boundaries in healthy relationships: talking.
Have you and your significant other spent any time talking about talking? This article is not an attempt to build an additional cell on the prison of Christian dating, but to liberate more of you from an overlooked, but widespread, trap in dating.
Many of us simply find out too late how much of our heartache in relationships can be traced to something we said too soon. After all, our most private part is not something anyone can touch. “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). Touching too soon will surely put our hearts in unqualified and dangerous hands, but our words can leave us just as vulnerable.Let’s Talk About Talking
Most of us have never thought of setting conversational boundaries. I wasn’t ready when one girlfriend’s dad asked in the first couple months of our relationship, “Have you mentioned marriage yet?”
[Long, awkward pause.]
“Um, yeah . . . I think we did talk about it once. . . . ”
“I don’t think that was appropriate for you to talk about, and I expect you to care for her better than that.”
I was totally caught off guard. I had never even thought of certain topics of conversation as inappropriate or dangerous. If dating is supposed to be the pursuit of marriage, don’t we have to talk about marriage? Yes, we do, but carefully, and at the right times, and in wise ways. For some, talking about marriage can be as intimate as touching — or even more.
Trust in a marriage isn’t only for the bedroom, but for all of life. We weren’t meant to build a blueprint for life with three or four almost-spouses. It may feel fun and exciting now to talk about what time of year we might get married, or how many kids we might have, or where we might vacation, or what kind of ministry we might take on together, but it can be as spiritually dangerous as sexual immorality. Some may be tempted to talk about sex, to dream out loud about how great lovemaking would be in marriage. It may feel safe — we’re not even touching — but actually it’s just a lightly veiled effort to enjoy the intimacy of sex too soon without crossing physical boundaries.
You’ll have to have certain conversations eventually, but don’t rush into them, and when you do have them, have them with caution and self-control. You will be able to safely enjoy dreaming together for years and years — without a hint of guilt or danger — if you get married.How Much Do We Talk?
There are at least two categories to think about when it comes to conversations with a boyfriend or girlfriend. First, monitor how much you talk and how much time you spend together. If we’re serious about guarding our hearts and minds, developing healthy independence, and anchoring our hope and joy in Jesus more than in each other, we’ll be careful with how much time we’re focused specifically on one another. It may feel ridiculous and unnecessary to resist the impulse to talk all the time — you’re both curious, and excited, and ready to hang out — but it will serve you so well in the future, whether you get married or not.
My wife and I dated long distance, so our situation will be different than yours. At first, we talked about once a week, typically for thirty to forty minutes, for a couple of months. Then it was a couple times a week. After six months or so, we started talking most days, typically for an hour or less. We never made it a habit of talking for hours every night. We’ve never regretted that in marriage, and we’ve had every opportunity to make up for any lost time.
Our rhythm wasn’t coincidental or accidental; it was intentional. We wanted to honor Jesus and each other even more than we wanted to talk to each other (and we really enjoyed talking to each other). Boundaries were not concessions we made because we were Christians. They were freedoms we exercised and enjoyed, and they reflected what mattered most to us. Boundaries not only reveal what we say we believe; they reveal what we really prize.
I don’t share our experience to write new rules or to try to limit you to an hour per day, but to give you categories for deliberate self-control and patience. Wisdom won’t be a predetermined amount of time for every relationship, so you’ll have to talk about what seems healthy and appropriate for you, and to ask friends and family for their input. I can tell you, from my own failures in this area, that it won’t happen by accident, so don’t be afraid to initiate the conversation about your conversations.What Do We Talk About?
Second, think about what you talk about when you do talk. Limiting your time will focus your conversations, at least it did for us. Trading three or four hours for forty minutes meant we were more intentional with what we talked about. But it’s still worth talking about which conversations you don’t need to have yet — or even shouldn’t have yet.
You don’t have to figure out your whole future together by the third date. You don’t have to talk about your relationship every time you talk, or even half of the time. You don’t need to remind each other why you like each other every fifteen minutes. You really don’t need to talk much about marriage until it’s reasonable that you might actually get engaged and married relatively soon. Conversations like these easily become places we compromise without realizing it in the moment. We indulge desires for intimacy without touching. If you don’t have anything to talk about now except your relationship and your future, you probably won’t have much to talk about if you do get married.
Have a conversation about how often you should check in about your relationship. Seek out counsel about a good timeline to talk about marriage. Draw in others to decide on a good time to talk through your pasts in relationships. Define the relationship every now and then, and communicate your feelings and intentions clearly, but spend significantly more time talking about what God is teaching you, how you’re growing in grace, and where you’re spending your energy and gifts for the sake of others.
Good biographies expose us to times, people, and thinking outside of our own day. Here are some of the best biographies of Reformation figures.
A sinner is justified by faith alone or he is not justified at all.
Ulrich Zwingli’s career as a Reformer was relatively brief, but his energetic and multifaceted leadership was crucial in the early days of the Protestant movement.
Born to the chief local magistrate of a small alpine village named Wildhaus in 1484, Zwingli attended the universities of Vienna and Basel before serving as priest in the Swiss town of Glarus from 1506 to 1516. While priest in the town of Einsiedeln the following two years (1517–1518), Zwingli broke with traditional Roman Catholic practice by preaching in clear expository fashion in the German vernacular of his people. Such preaching earned him a post in the free city or “canton” of Zurich by 1519.
In Einsiedeln, Zwingli had been an ardent student of the Greek New Testament recently compiled by Erasmus of Rotterdam. Now in Zurich, Zwingli spent six years preaching straight through the New Testament, mingling with the people of his parish, writing against unscriptural Catholic dogma and practices, and engaging in public debates with Catholic authorities before the town leaders. During that time, the town councils of both Zurich and the nearby canton of Bern voted to adopt Protestantism.The Sixty-Seven Articles
For his public debates with Catholic authorities in early 1523, Zwingli composed “The Sixty-Seven Articles.” The document’s brief introduction and conclusion reveal Zwingli’s deep respect for the authority of God’s word and his firm belief in the Bible’s unique status as the only revelation of the saving good news of Jesus Christ and of God’s will for Christian people. The introduction reads,
The articles and opinions below, I, Ulrich Zwingli, confess to have preached in the worthy city of Zurich as based upon the Scriptures which are called inspired of God . . . and where I have not now correctly understood said Scriptures I shall allow myself to be taught better, but only from said Scriptures.
Zwingli would expand on these articles in a book-length treatise in 1525 titled “The True and False Religion.” In 1526, he composed “Ten Theses” for Bern, which served as a succinct summary of his Reformed perspective.Away with the Pomp
Zwingli, the Swiss giant of the Reformation, was particularly indignant about the pomp, hypocrisy, and idolatry of man-made religion. His labors for the reformation of Zurich and other Swiss cantons can be best conceived of, perhaps, as an effort to free people from the burdens imposed by a religious system invented by men that can’t deliver on its promise of eternal life.
Article 7 of “The Sixty-Seven Articles” states that Christ “is an eternal salvation and head of all believers, who are his body, but which is dead and can do nothing without him.” Attending Mass, participating in the so-called sacraments of Roman Catholicism, or even being ordained as a priest did not make someone a spiritually alive member of the true “ecclesia catholica” (universal church). That only happens by the gospel and the Spirit.Eat a Sausage, Find a Wife
Zwingli was an activist who not only aimed to teach and apply the Bible alone, but who lobbied both church and civil authorities to realign their laws and policies with God’s word. During the Lenten season of 1522, Zwingli gave his tacit assent in the home of a parishioner, the printer Christoph Froschauer, as he and his guests ate sausage, prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church during Lent but a staple local food. Zwingli successfully lobbied the Zurich town authorities to release these men from jail, where they’d been put for breaking the Lenten fast.
Taking advantage of the town council’s leniency, Zwingli and ten other priests wrote to the Bishop of Constance requesting the right of priests to be married, since the blanket requirement of clerical celibacy was unscriptural and unwise. Zwingli himself was already living with a widow, Anna Reinhart, whom he married soon after Zurich became a Protestant canton free from the bishop’s authority.
Zwingli also held a deep respect for women and longed for them to experience authentic Christian discipleship. In 1522, he visited a convent to deliver a series of lectures titled “Of the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God,” theological lessons on the doctrine of revelation and Bible interpretation.Twelve Years of Reform
On October 11, 1531, at age 47, Zwingli died unarmed on a battlefield near Kappel, Switzerland, serving as a chaplain to the Protestant troops, carrying only a flag and a Bible.
At the time of his death, Zwingli was only a dozen years removed from his life as a priest in Einsiedeln — a short career compared to Luther’s and Calvin’s decades of reform. But there’s a reason Zwingli is often the third name people mention when remembering the Reformation. By God’s grace, this dynamic Reformer’s dozen years brought countless Swiss men and women away from dead ceremony, and back to Jesus Christ.
Heinrich Bullinger succeeded Zwingli as pastor of Gross Münster church and head of Zurich’s “School of the Prophets,” which trained men in biblical languages, exegesis, and preaching. In the 1560s, Bullinger was the main author of the Second Helvetic Confession, adopted soon after by Reformed churches in Switzerland, Scotland, Hungary, France, and Poland. It remains to this day one of the most influential and beloved doctrinal statements of various Reformed denominations the world over.
For further reading:
Theology of the Reformers by Timothy George
The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World by Stephen J. Nichols
There is something more dreadful in this world than when God makes us miserable because of our sin: when God uses more sin to make us miserable because of our sin.
This is more dreadful because misery may be a wake-up call that leads to repentance. But more sin means deeper bondage and more guilt.Precious Place of Fear
Therefore, if we are about to walk into sin, we should feel doubly afraid. We should fear the threat of misery. And even more, we should fear the failure of faith that leads to final enslavement and nothing but misery.
And, yes, there is a godly fear by which we fight for faith and life: “You stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear” (Romans 11:20).
I have tasted enough of my own capacities for unbelief and self-deception to know how easily I would be enslaved to sin if God did not awaken fear. Fear and trembling are not pointless words for me, when Paul says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Nor do I flinch when Jesus says to me, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).Worth of Warnings
One of God’s merciful warnings is to tell us that there is something more dreadful than when he makes us miserable because of our sin. Namely, when he uses sin to make us miserable for our sin. Oh how precious is the word of God to give us such alarming warnings!
If you are about to sin, ponder which is worse: the mercy of God-appointed misery, or melting in the hands of your iniquity? So, we read the warning: “You have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities” (Isaiah 64:7).Lust
What would be a worse consequence for dabbling in pornography — getting caught by your spouse, or moving on to adultery? So, we read: “The mouth of forbidden women is a deep pit; he with whom the Lord is angry will fall into it” (Proverbs 22:14; see also Ecclesiastes 7:26). In other words, we better hope — with trembling — that the anger of the Lord would gouge out our eye, rather than let us fall into the pit of adultery. One eye is a better price to pay than the depth of that pit.Stubbornness
And if we fall into a season of dullness and do not listen to the Lord’s voice or submit to his words, which is worse: stumbling into financial ruin, or being surrendered to the pride of a stiff neck? So we read: “My people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels” (Psalm 81:11–12). Fiscal misery would be a gift compared to being abandoned to a stubborn heart.Worldiness
If you are falling in love with the world, and about to exchange the glory of God for the dream of gold, ponder which is worse: waking up with gravel in your mouth, or being handed over to ever deepening perversion? So, we read: “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves. . . . God gave them up to dishonorable passions. . . . God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:24–28).Doubt
If you are about to surrender to your doubts, and call Christ an illusion, which would be worse: a bullet of truth through the arm of your flesh, or a beautiful song of endless deceit? So, we read: “They refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false” (2 Thessalonians 2:10–11).Pay Attention to the Alarms
Oh how merciful of God to give us such warnings! How kind to shake us out of glib and playful attitudes about the Christian life! How sweet to make us serious about the greatest things. How patient to offer sorrow instead of slavery, chastisement instead of chains, pain instead of perdition.
All this mercy, kindness, sweetness, and patience awaits you in his word.
A sinner is justified by faith alone or he is not justified at all.
During my second year of surgical residency, I totaled my car on the way to work at four o’clock in the morning.
Exhaustion from late nights at the hospital weighed down my limbs as I slogged into Boston. I opened the windows to jolt myself awake, but the sting of the icy winter air faded quickly. As I neared the curve of an on-ramp, my tires lost their grip against a glaze of black ice. I flailed at the steering wheel as my car slid across the highway and careened into a barrier. The airbag punched me in the face. The sickening screech of contorted metal against concrete splintered the air before the car finally skidded to a halt.
I sat trembling for several minutes, my chest heaving, blood dripping from my nose. The road was empty. God had spared not only me, but also the dozen or so commuters with whom I usually shared that stretch of highway early in the morning.
Yet in those days, my mind was far from the things of God. Instead of thanking him and retreating home to nurse my concussion, I hitched a ride with the tow-truck driver. With my head throbbing, I trekked through two miles of snow and stumbled into the hospital — not to be evaluated, but to work.Obsessed
Taking a day off from my residency would have generated grumblings at worst. But my obsession with work so enslaved me that I barreled through catastrophe to feed my fragile sense of self-importance. I risked lives in the process — first on the road, then through my befuddled meanderings in the hospital. My actions that day were reckless, dangerous, and stupid.
But they also solidified my reputation.
After the accident, colleagues and mentors applauded me as altruistic, selfless, and committed. They nicknamed me “Mighty Mouse.” Around corners, I overheard fellow residents remark about my dedication and strength. Overnight, I transformed from an insecure trainee who endlessly fumbled to the one whose allegiance to the job superseded concerns for herself.
To someone scrambling for worth in the dark, the accolades were intoxicating. I soon guarded my professional identity as if it were a crust of bread during famine. I embraced a twisted asceticism that denied worldly comforts in favor of “doing the right thing.” My idolatry climaxed in a night spent crammed under my desk at 37-weeks pregnant, napping after staying overnight to perform an operation the on-call surgeon could have completed. The next day, I spent hours in prodromal labor.A Respectable Idol
During these years, I worked so feverishly, not to serve God, but to relish the approval it brought me — and because I feared the implications for my identity should the praise fall silent.
Our world, it seems, condones such idolatry, and even trains us in it. Modern professionalism demands an impeccable standard of performance from its adherents. Amid the pressure, many of us depend on labels such as thorough, hardworking, diligent, tireless, and strong to substantiate our worth. While the gospel says that we desperately need Jesus because we can’t earn our own worth, Western professionalism teaches a different ethic — a wholly unattainable one. An ideology that claims we can finely control all variables in life if we only work hard enough. A creed that prizes titles, status, and public opinion over humility and quiet faithfulness.
And when we ascribe to this philosophy and then fail — which we inevitably do — that failure threatens the core of our being.Empty Praises
Upon first reception, praise seems like a balm for the brokenness that cripples us. When inadequacy burdens our hearts, a complimentary word feels like an embrace; its warmth infuses us with newfound resolve. In the moment, praise seems to renew us.
Yet true renewal only wells forth from the Spirit (John 7:37–39). As with anything artificial, praise loses its potency. The initial bloom withers and dies, and desperation mounts as we scramble for the next affirmation. Chasing after the praises of men leaves us empty, always aching for more (Jeremiah 2:13).
More importantly, our work does not please God when we labor for people’s applause. The trappings of worldly accomplishments may swell our pride, but when we pursue them to inflate our own egos, they are like filthy rags to the one who made heaven and earth (Isaiah 64:6). Only when we abide in Christ do we accomplish anything that honors God, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). However noble our efforts may appear to the world, we labor in vain when we strive apart from God (Psalm 127:1–2).
The momentary euphoria of praise is a measly reward compared to our inheritance in Christ (Colossians 3:23–24). A lust for approval also casts our eyes away from salvation, further miring us in the murk of sin. “How can you believe,” Jesus said, “when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). When we seek approval from the world, we veer away from God’s grace.A Deeper Identity
When we receive Christ as our Savior, we assume an identity that transcends all praise from human lips. Christ casts away our sinfulness, our corruption, and our failings, and clothes us with “the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). We become members of God’s household, his beloved children (Ephesians 1:5, 2:19). In Christ, our worth is complete.
If we strive for the meager praises of men after Christ has washed us with living hope, we clamber after nothingness. Our worth derives not from our own merit, our accolades, or our titles, but from our status as God’s own people (1 Peter 2:9–10).
When we embrace that status and rest in God’s everlasting favor, our work achieves new richness. We strive with all our being to serve our great God rather than our flimsy egos. We live according to our new self, and let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts instead of the materialism and paltry approval of the world (Colossians 3:10, 15). We sacrifice for others, not to collect their praise, but to reflect the one who gave his life so that we might live.
The God who gives us life and breath and everything else renews us with his love. He grants us dignity we could never achieve by our own greedy strivings in the early-morning hours. He completes us where we fail, and forges merit that no human hands could achieve. Our identity, our value, our worth, arise from him. To God be all the glory and all the praise.
Apart from God, we are utterly helpless. But in his great mercy and grace, he rescues even the worst of sinners.
For those familiar with the English Reformation, the name Latimer sounds incomplete on its own. It demands a Ridley.
Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley are fastened together in history primarily because they were fastened to the same stake on October 16, 1555, on the north side of Oxford. But Latimer and Ridley share more than a martyrdom. The bishops also join each other on the list of England’s most influential Reformers — men and women whose allegiance to Scripture and the glory of Christ transformed England from a Catholic kingdom to a lighthouse of Reformation.
Both Latimer and Ridley lived during the reigns of four English monarchs: Henry VII, Henry VIII (the one with all the wives), Edward VI, and Mary I (aka “Blood Mary”). Both witnessed the Reformation’s tug and pull under Henry VIII’s tentative acceptance, Edward VI’s warm embrace, and Mary I’s violent resistance to Reformed doctrine. But they were anything but casual observers.Latimer the Preacher
Latimer, born around 1485, spent the first thirty years of his life a zealous Catholic — or, in his words, an “obstinate Papist.” “I was as obstinate a Papist as any was in England,” he wrote, “insomuch that when I should be made bachelor of divinity, my whole oration was against Philip Melanchthon [i.e., Luther’s right-hand man].”
But soon after Latimer’s anti-Reformation oration, a young Cambridge divine named Thomas Bilney approached him with a request. Would Latimer allow Bilney to privately explain his own Reformed faith? Latimer agreed, and from then on he “began to smell the Word of God, and forsook the school doctors and such fooleries.” Latimer gathered up the arrows he had been shooting at the Reformation, and he started pointing the bow in the other direction. Throughout the next couple decades, he distinguished himself as a fervent Reformed preacher, at times enjoying Henry VIII’s favor for it, and at other times fearing his persecution (depending on the king’s mood).
Perhaps the most fruitful years of Latimer’s ministry came under Edward VI’s short reign, from 1547 to 1553. Despite his age, Latimer assisted Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer in reforming the English church, and he also preached like a man who just couldn’t stop. According to J.C. Ryle, “No one of the Reformers probably sowed the seeds of Protestant doctrine so widely and effectually among the middle and lower classes as Latimer.”
Then, in 1553, Queen Mary came to power, and Latimer was sent to a cell in the Tower of London.Ridley the Scholar
Ridley, nearly twenty years Latimer’s junior, was born around 1502 near the border of Scotland. Throughout the next five decades, he would become one of England’s sharpest intellects, even going so far as to memorize all the New Testament letters — in Greek.
After attending Cambridge’s Pembroke College in his teenage years, Ridley continued his studies in France, where he likely encountered Reformation teachings. Unlike Latimer, Ridley left no clear account of his passage from Catholic priest to Protestant preacher. But we do know that he signed the 1534 decree against the pope’s supremacy, that he accepted the post of chaplain to Archbishop Cranmer three years later, and that he renounced the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation by 1545. When he became the bishop of London in 1550, he replaced the stone altars in London’s churches with plain wooden tables. According to Ridley and the Reformers, communion was a spiritual feast, not a sacrifice.
Ridley’s scholarly abilities launched him from one prestigious post to the next, even under Henry VIII’s capricious reign. From Canterbury to Westminster to Soham to Rochester to London, Ridley studied, preached, and, once Edward VI took the throne, threw himself into Cranmer’s reforms.
But then Queen Mary came to power, and Ridley joined Latimer in the Tower.England’s Candle
On October 16, 1555, after spending eighteen months in a tower cell, Latimer and Ridley met at an Oxford stake. With Latimer in a frock and cap, and Ridley in his bishop’s gown, the two men talked and prayed together before a smith lashed them to the wood.
Ridley was the first to strengthen his friend. “Be of good heart, brother, for God will either assuage the fury of the flame, or else strengthen us to abide it.” As the bundle of sticks caught fire beneath them, Latimer had his turn. Raising his voice so Ridley could hear, he cried, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”
Three years later, Mary I died and passed the kingdom to her half-sister Elizabeth, a Protestant queen. And Latimer and Ridley’s candle burst into a torch.
For further reading:
Five English Reformers by J.C. Ryle
When Silicon Valley’s 20-something techno-prodigies were awing the world with new, shiny, unveilings of iPods and then iPhones and then iPads, many of the inventors didn’t have kids. Few had teens. Now, most of them have kids, and many have teens — teenagers addicted to gadgets their parents birthed into the world years ago.
This is the story of Tony Fadell, a former Senior VP at Apple, known as the grandfather of the iPod, and a key player on the early design team for the iPhone. On the 10-year anniversary of the iPhone in an interview, he made this admission: “I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world?”
Fadell, a father of three, has come to see the addictive power of the iPhone, an addiction that cannot be removed. “I know what happens when I take technology away from my kids. They literally feel like you’re tearing a piece of their person away from them — they get emotional about it, very emotional. They go through withdrawal for two to three days.”
“This self-absorbing culture is starting to [really stink],” Fadell said. “Parents didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know this was a thing they needed to teach because we didn’t know for ourselves. We all kind of got absorbed in it.”
Yes — we all got absorbed — techies and teens and parents. All of us. And now we’re trying to figure out how to wisely manage our devices.Teens, Smartphones, and Depression
Digital absorption has coincided with the fast-changing dynamics of public high school life. Last winter, I asked an assistant principal at a large Twin Cities high school (of more than 2,000 students) how her job has changed over the past two decades.
Much remains the same, she said. “But the one thing that has changed drastically in working with teenagers for over twenty years is the dependency they have now on the instant gratification and feedback from others. How many likes do I have? How many followers? And there’s a compulsion to put something online to see how many likes I can get. And if that wasn’t enough, what does it say about me?”
“There’s a really strong connection to this behavior and the increased mental health issues we’re seeing in the school,” she said. “Over the past three-to-five years I would say my job has changed the most, because we’re now dealing with so much more mental health. I don’t think it’s singularly because of technology, but I genuinely believe digital technology is a major factor. It changes everything from the way people relate with others to the way they see themselves.”Destroying a Generation?
The cold sweats of Fadell and the eyewitness testimony of this assistant principal are captured in the haunting headline over a recent feature article published in The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”
iGen is the new label for those roughly 12-to-22-year-olds, born between 1995 and 2005. Among them, the warning signs are prevalent. “Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011,” wrote author Jean Twenge of the struggles faced by the iGen-ers. “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.
“The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression,” and, “girls have borne the brunt of the rise in depressive symptoms among today’s teens.” Twenge cites sources that show depression is on the rise among both boys and girls. For boys, depressive symptoms rose 21% between 2012–2015. In the same span, rates among girls increased by 50%. The rates of suicide for both increased, too. Male suicides doubled; female suicides increased threefold.
From what I know about these spikes in depression, and what I have discovered about the allure of our devices, what we are addressing here are existential questions about the meaning of life and acceptance from others — massive questions, weighing heavy on a young generation. These are redemptive questions, identity questions, gospel issues.
Digital media force a teen and preteen into the 24-7 pressure cooker of peer approval. But it’s not just teens; all of us feel this addictive draw of our social media. Smartphones seem to influence us all in at least 12 potent ways.
But the question here is pretty straightforward: Given these warning signs, is it possible for a teen to resist the powers of culture and go smartphone-free through the middle school and high school years?Smartphone-Free Teens
I asked Jaquelle Crowe, the author of the excellent book, This Changes Everything: How the Gospel Transforms the Teen Years, that question. She provides us with a rare example of an iGen teen who postponed the adoption of a smartphone until age 18. I asked her what it was like to wait so long.
Jaquelle, thanks for your time to share your experience. Studies are beginning to suggest that rates of teen depression are on the rise, and there is no single factor to get all the blame. But the pervasiveness of smartphones among iGen teens has to be considered as a significant cause. Would this connection surprise you?
Absolutely not. Smartphones contribute significantly to the 24-7 approval culture we live in. There’s no escaping it. This is something our parents don’t always understand, because when they were teenagers, that culture was largely limited to the 9–3 school day, and then they retreated to the boredom of family life.
But now there’s 24-7 social media. There’s a constant comparison and peer approval game that cannot be escaped. And it’s crippling, exhausting, and undeniably stressful. You can’t get away from the likes, the shares, the texts, the pictures. It’s like the popularity contest never ends. And it works both ways. Your smartphone gives you a front-row seat to watch the popularity contest, too.
That is a powerful dynamic, hard to escape the popularity culture on both fronts (feeding it and watching it play out). You did not get a smartphone until you were 18, but you had friends with smartphones, right?
Yes, I did, and I was well aware that most of my peers had access to something I didn’t. I could name every friend who had a phone, simply because I would see their phone. If Alison got a phone, I knew about it. If Jared got a phone, I knew about it. Not because they flaunted it or shamed me, but because it was always around. Even if we were talking together, it would buzz or ping or they’d be fidgeting with it. If there was a pause, a moment of silence, a break, they’d be on their phones, and I’d be left in the lingering awkwardness and boredom.
It definitely fed my FOMO (fear of missing out). It fed into some insecurity. Even though my friends never made me feel weird for not having a smartphone, it was an expectation, so they were surprised when they discovered I didn’t have one. There were times when I was the outlier. And not only with friends but also with my generation at large. I’d be walking through the mall or waiting in line or stopped on the sidewalk, and I would look around, fully present and disconnected — and stare at a sea of teens glued to smartphones. I was an exception, and that felt uncomfortable.
At times, I felt lonely — even if I was surrounded by people. They were constantly connected and I was isolated. I felt confined by my lack of access. At the same time, those feelings were largely emotional and visceral because I agreed theoretically with my parents — that I didn’t need a phone right then.
I applaud your parents for this foresight and conviction. Most parents, I fear, simply cave to the pressure, as their teen caves to the pressure — a domino effect of pressures, and certainly one I feel as a parent. But it’s worth giving this decision critical thought, because introducing a fully functioning smartphone is a decision that cannot easily be undone. For you, how much trust does this call for on the part of a teen, to wait? It seems like you have to trust your parents more than your peers, and that’s a main struggle of the teen years.
It calls for trust, definitely. And connected to that, a willingness to submit and obey. Ultimately, it requires a recognition that your parents are actually looking out for your best interests — emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically — and that they know you better than your peers do.
The thing is, deep down, most teens know that. They just push back because not owning a smartphone makes them feel ashamed.
I assume you had access to a phone of some sort?
Yes. If I was going out, I’d often borrow my mom’s flip phone for emergencies. I almost never used it.
That’s wise. As for digital media, what did you have access to before the smartphone?
I had a computer, I had email, I had access to some social media. I technically could do everything from home. But in a digital world with an expanding reach, that still somehow seemed limited.
For sure. Speaking as a 20-year-old now, what would you say to parents who are weighing the pros/cons and reading all the news and the testimonies of parents of teens, and who are coming to the conclusion that delaying the smartphone in the life of their teen would be wise? What kind of pushback should they expect to hear from their teen?
To parents, I’d say: It is worth it to have your kids wait. I’ve seen it and heard it and can attest to it since I got my own smartphone — smartphones change you. They give you overwhelming and shocking access. They zap your attention span. They are massively addictive. You can (and should!) put up safeguards, but a smartphone fundamentally changes your heart and mind. If it’s possible for teens to delay that change, I think it is a wise consideration.
Teach your teens discipline and discernment before you entrust them with the dangers of a smartphone. Of course, smartphones are not inherently evil; they have the potential for great good. But they need to be wielded well.
If you’re making your teen wait, don’t delegitimize the painful exclusion they’ll feel but use this time to prepare them to use technology wisely and faithfully. In the hands of unprepared, immature teens, smartphones can be deadly.
As for pushback that a parent is sure to hear, teens will feel left out. That might make them frustrated, confused, lonely, or hurt, and if they lash out, that’s why. They might feel like they’re separated from their friends. They might feel the pain of peer pressure. They might fear missing out. They might even have some legitimate concerns (e.g., having a phone with them when they’re out by themselves).
Parents, in the face of this pushback, be willing to explain your reasoning. When your teens ask you, “Why can’t I have a smartphone?” they really don’t want you to say, “Because I told you so.” Even if they don’t agree with it, they will likely respect your willingness to reason with them and the depth of critical thought you’ve put into this.
Share your research with them. Introduce them to other teens (in person or online) who don’t have smartphones. Instead of treating them like a child (just saying, “No” and moving on), pursue thoughtful, honest dialogue with them. Allow them to keep the conversation going, and be willing to do the hard work of communication for the greater good of your relationship.
Very good. And perhaps we can close with what you would say directly to the teens in this scenario. What should they expect to face by way of internal and peer struggle?
To the teens who take this countercultural move, you are an outlier in your generation. Obedience in life requires avoiding every clingy weight that will trip you up in the Christian life (Hebrews 12:1). I can only encourage you to hold fast. It comes down to this. Hold fast.
Jesus is better than a smartphone. You will rehearse this truth over and over in your heart.
And when you feel burdened by exclusion and isolation, don’t despair. Your identity is not in fitting in or meeting superficial expectations. It’s in Christ alone. And he gives you one task: be faithful. Right now, that looks like obeying your parents and trusting their good intentions for you — and that may mean not having a smartphone for a time.
Don’t run from this reality in shame; embrace it in faith. Your joy is not found in cultural connectivity; it’s found in union with Christ. So hold fast, and be faithful. Your reward is coming and it is far greater than any loss you will feel in this life.
Choosing which of the five ‘solas’ is most important is like choosing which wing of an airplane matters most. All the ‘solas’ stand or fall together.
In a 1791 sermon, Lemuel Haynes remarked, “Nothing is more evident than that men are prejudiced against the gospel. It is from this source that those who are for the defense of it meet with so much contempt” (The Faithful Preacher, 25). The French Reformer Guillaume Farel knew his fair share of contempt.
A fervent gospel minister, Farel spent his days championing the Protestant cause, often in the face of opposition. At times, this opposition arose from true gospel prejudice. At other times, though, Farel’s own foolhardiness was to blame. John Calvin noted that Farel could sometimes get “carried away by the vehemence of his zeal” (Calvin, 152). Blending a headstrong temperament with a deep concern for biblical piety, Farel contended unflinchingly for the faith and was instrumental in the cause of early French reform.“The Papacy Fell from My Heart”
Born in Gap, France in 1489, Farel grew up in a devout Catholic household. As a twenty-year-old, he enrolled at the University of Paris to study theology. While there, Farel encountered the humanist scholar Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, a man whose devotion to Christ inspired Farel.
After graduating in 1517, Farel began teaching at the Collège du Cardinal Lemoine. Reports of Luther’s reforming efforts in Germany reached him there, bolstering his own growing conviction that Catholic worship and teaching had strayed from their biblical roots. As he studied Scripture over several years, Farel found that “little by little the papacy fell from my heart” (William Farel, 26).
Farel resigned from his teaching position, and in 1521 he began to promote the message of reform wherever he could. He preached in France and in the French-speaking Swiss regions, crossing paths with Johannes Oecolampadius in Basel and Wolfgang Capito and Martin Bucer in Strasbourg. Farel was known for his confrontational style, which prompted the following warning from Oecolampadius: “the more you are prone to violence, the more you must work on being gentle and tone down your lion-like outbursts by the spirit of a dove” (William Farel, 38).Calvin’s Co-Laborer
In 1533, after an unsuccessful visit the previous year, Farel took up residence in Geneva, intent on leading the city to adopt the Reformation. His hopes were realized in 1536 when the General Council of Geneva officially allied itself with Protestantism.
It was in that same year that Farel famously persuaded Calvin to join him in his work. Calvin was passing through Geneva on his way to Strasbourg, intent on a quiet life of scholarship. Farel learned of Calvin’s presence in the city and tried to convince him to stay. When gentler appeals proved unsuccessful, Farel threatened Calvin with God’s judgment. Farel’s words found their mark. Calvin later wrote, “By this imprecation I was so stricken with terror, that I desisted from the journey which I had undertaken” (William Farel, 69).
The decision to stay in Geneva was pivotal for Calvin, for although he and Farel were driven out of the city in 1538 — the two had clashed with the magistrates over church discipline matters — Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541 and ministered there for the rest of his life. Farel relocated to Neuchâtel, a city where he and Antoine Froment had introduced Reformation teaching in 1530. Like Calvin in Geneva, Farel established himself in Neuchâtel until his own death in 1565.
Calvin and Farel maintained a close relationship after their time together in Geneva, corresponding at least once a month for twenty years. The two men, together with Pierre Viret in Lausanne, formed a crucial partnership that helped advance the cause of French reform. Sadly, Calvin and Farel’s relationship ruptured when, in 1558, Farel announced his betrothal to Marie Thorel, a teenaged woman over fifty years his junior. Though it seems there was no sexual impropriety involved, the marriage created a scandal because of the vast age difference between the two spouses. Calvin’s friendship with Farel never recovered its former luster.A Lover and a Fighter
As lion-like and controversial as Farel could be, he was committed to the spiritual vitality of the French-speaking people. He produced some of the first Reformation works available in French, writing a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer in 1524 and a summary of Reformed teaching in 1529.
In his writings, Farel displayed a particular interest in the topic of prayer. In an article titled “Guillaume Farel’s Spirituality,” Theodore Van Raalte argues that Farel’s emphasis on prayer shows us a side of him that is too often overlooked, a side marked by “profound piety and pastoral love.” Farel was both a lover and a fighter, a pastor and a pugilist. Whatever his faults, this French firebrand loved the gospel and devoted his life to sharing its riches.
For more on Guillaume Farel:
William Farel by Jason Zuidema
A friend of mine once confessed his secret ministry fantasy to me: Grow his church to place where it no longer required faith to lead it.
I knew exactly what he meant. I’ve struggled with the same fantasy. Get enough money, people, recognition, staff, volunteers, lay leaders, salary, book deals, and speaking gigs that we don’t need to depend on God for anything anymore. But in serving as a pastor and working with fellow pastors for many years, I’ve found two characteristics essential to do ministry in a way that depends on God: courage to be ordinary and comfort with obscurity.Courage to Be Ordinary
One of my mentors often tells me, “It takes extraordinary courage to be ordinary.” For the longest time, I would nod in agreement but not believe him.
I needed to be extraordinary. When I replanted a church, I often over-functioned in my role as a pastor. I carried the entire weight of the church on my shoulders. I had my own scorecard full of the metrics that mattered to me. And one was becoming a self-supporting church.
I prided myself on how quickly we achieved it, all the while hiding the fact that we became self-supporting because I was secretly functioning as the financial savior. I carried way too much of the financial burden. I was rarely honest about our monetary needs. I didn’t take the full benefits package the church offered me. I rarely turned in my reimbursements. And I did it for respect.
As pastors, we can often trade love for respect. We are afraid people won’t love our true selves, so we keep going, wearing ourselves out doing more than we are made to do to sustain the image of a successful pastor. We quietly say to ourselves, “I can’t stop or the whole thing will fall apart.”
It is exhausting and lonely to keep up that image. Jesus is the one to build his church, rest in being just one piece of his work in the world.How to Be More Ordinary
Three things help us find the courage to be ordinary: vulnerability, suffering, and prayer.
Vulnerability is necessary to be ordinary because it embraces the limits of being human. You will not meet everyone’s expectation. You don’t have all the gifts the church needs. You need help.
For me, it meant letting my elders know that the church wasn’t really self-supporting, and we couldn’t afford all the ministry we were doing. I know admitting that kind of need sounds simple and silly; for me, it was nearly impossible. I felt exposed and ashamed. I admitted a competency failure, which can be harder to admit than a character failure.
In terms of suffering, it means whatever gain you have, you count as loss for the sake of Christ. You suffer the loss of all things in order to gain Jesus. You admit your limitations and put your resume and reputation at risk.
And finally, as you embrace your limitations, you will cry out to God in “Jesus only” prayers. My pastor, Geoff Bradford, introduced me to the idea of “Jesus only” prayers. A couple of years ago, he started making a list of things he longed to happen that only Jesus could make happen. And he started to pray for those things every day. I hear the massive problems and start looking for quick fixes. He keeps praying Jesus only prayers, and therefore often getting Jesus only answers.Comfort with Obscurity
A number of years ago, I was at a conference where a friend was speaking. I spent a lot of time with him during a tough season in his ministry. He’s told me he wouldn’t still be pastoring without my help. But nobody knows that. As he started his talk with a litany of thanksgiving I thought, “It would be nice if he thanked me, too.” But he didn’t. I didn’t even get a head nod. I was surprised at how much it bothered me. I had done valuable ministry and I wanted others to know about it.
I remembered a question my friend Paul Miller encouraged me to ask in the midst of struggle and suffering: “How is Jesus inviting you to share in his story?” My mind went to last verse in John: “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Jesus did a lot of ministry in obscurity. If everything he did got tweeted, it would break Twitter.
Most ministry is rightly done in obscurity. My best stories are those that few will ever know. As hard as that is, I think that’s very appropriate. For in those cases, my Father sees, understands, appreciates, and affirms. And that’s enough. One day God will say to me, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21), and give me the “unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4). Sometimes he gives me a foretaste of that through the affirmation and praise from others, but most of my ministry will be in obscurity.
The cannon is closed. Scripture is sufficient. Our stories don’t need to be recorded for eternity. Maybe a future church historian will use our ministry as a topic for his dissertation. Most of us will — to borrow a phrase — preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.How to Be Obscure in the Right Way
Jesus increases; we decrease. His work is seen; ours is obscured. We need to fight to be comfortable with that. Again, vulnerability, suffering, and prayer can help.
Vulnerability will come as you lose public reputation in order to gain personal integrity. You will preach ordinary sermons. There will be good ministry you do that you can’t talk about or that won’t make a fundraising pitch. You are working with people; their stories of deliverance are theirs to share, not yours to glory in.
Suffering often comes in the form of contempt you feel from those who seem to get what you want — the church, the family, the lifestyle, the recognition — but do it in a way that seems to have little regard for God and his laws. Maybe they are other pastors. Maybe they are your pagan neighbors. Their lives seem better compared to yours.
I think that’s why Paul encouraged Timothy to do ministry a different way, even if it seemed like he wasn’t as successful as others in Ephesus who experienced success in ministry without a care for God or his word (see 1 Timothy 6:3–11). As we labor in relative obscurity, we pray that God would be pleased with our work and cause much eternal fruit to grow.The Quiet Man of God
The courage to be ordinary and obscure can leave you in a place of quietness and peace. That’s important because we need to steward our soul long before we try to steward our ministry or influence. As Francis Schaeffer wrote, “The Christian leader should be a quiet man of God who is extruded by God’s grace into some place of leadership.”
Extruded is a good word. It means to be forced, like kids push Play-Doh through a die to get it into the shape they desire. This extrusion is, like all good things in our life, a gift of grace. Calm and quite your soul (Psalm 131:2). Let God force you into the ministry he knows you can sustain.
As King Henry VIII lay dying in his bed, he wanted one man to come and hold his hand. Amazingly, that man was a major proponent of the Protestant Reformation.
Thomas Cranmer helped lead the English Reformation, but he is an unlikely hero alongside Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers. He did not write any major theological books or pastor any important churches. Indeed, Cranmer did not adopt the central truths of the Reformation until relatively late in his life. But during the years of the Protestant Reformation, he shaped English theology perhaps more than any other person who has ever lived.The Seed of Separation
Born in 1489, in the small village of Aslockton, Thomas Cranmer grew up near the same Sherwood Forrest where Robin Hood hid out three centuries earlier. He was a slow reader, taking eight years to finish Cambridge’s four-year undergraduate degree. He persevered in his studies, completed a masters degree, was ordained into ministry, and was elected by Cambridge to teach. He built a reputation for pushing his students to study the Bible for themselves.
While Cranmer spent his days peacefully serving on academic committees, England was in turmoil. King Henry VIII wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Through a strange set of circumstances, Cranmer suggested to some of Henry’s advisors that the King of England was not ultimately subject to the pope’s rule (much to the king’s delight). Cranmer’s advice, then, inadvertently planted a seed that separated the English church from Roman Catholicism.The Reformed Politician
Cranmer traded away Roman Catholicism for Reformed doctrine by the end of his life, a transformation that mirrored the turmoil and split of the English Reformation. While a student at Cambridge, he had read Martin Luther skeptically, but he warmed to Reformed thought after befriending Simon Grynaeus and Andreas Osiander. He eventually rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation after conversations with his friend Nicholas Ridley. Cranmer then clarified his liturgical reforms through conversations with the Italian Reformer Peter Martyr and the German Reformer Martin Bucer.
Cranmer’s theology changed too dramatically for English Roman Catholics and too slowly for Reform-minded evangelicals. To some (even today), Cranmer’s reforms seemed too personally and politically motivated. But he did not have the luxury of working out abstract beliefs among a company of disinterested academia. His theology was formed in a volatile pastoral and political cauldron of crises.Father of the Anglican Church
Cranmer’s greatest ministry accomplishments came during the rule of Edward VI, when he rewrote the public liturgies, pastoral sermons (or homilies), private prayers, and articles of faith. These writings defined the doctrinal framework and personal piety which later developed into the Anglican Church, for which he is most remembered.
Cranmer wanted everyone in English churches to embrace justification by faith alone. He wrote,
This proposition — that we be justified by faith only, freely, and without works — is spoken in order to take away clearly all merit of our works, as being insufficient to deserve our justification at God’s hands; and thereby most plainly to express the weakness of man and the goodness of God, the imperfectness of our own works and the most abundant grace of our Savior Christ; and thereby wholly to ascribe the merit and deserving of our justification unto Christ only and his most precious blood-shedding. (The Works of Thomas Cranmer, 131)Double Recantation
When the Roman Catholic Queen Mary I took power, Cranmer’s Reformed convictions cost him his life. During an agonizing three-year period, he was imprisoned, isolated, humiliated, interrogated, and tortured. He was forced to watch his friends, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, burned alive.
Later, at his own execution, Cranmer nearly succumbed and recanted his beliefs, but this usually hesitant and quiet statesman powerfully demonstrated his faith in Christ while being burned at the stake.The Thief on the Throne
But the moment that best illustrates Cranmer’s enduring legacy was not the day of his own death, but a day nine years earlier, as he stood at the deathbed of King Henry VIII. On January 27, 1547, King Henry was dying. An attendant asked him whom he wished to have at his bedside. The king asked for Thomas.
By the time Cranmer arrived, King Henry was unable to speak. Foxe tells the story.
Then the archbishop, exhorting him to put his trust in Christ, and to call upon his mercy, desired him though he could not speak, yet to give some token with his eyes or with his hand, that he trusted in the Lord. Then the king, holding him with his hand, did wring his hand in his as hard as he could. (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 748)
The scene sweetly punctuates the most important friendship in the English Reformation. Whatever King Henry believed when he squeezed Cranmer’s hand that day, God used the bond between them to break England free from Roman Catholicism and to recover the one true gospel.
For more on Thomas Cranmer:
Thomas Cranmer: A Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch