Just a month ago we celebrated the 241st anniversary of our nation’s independence. And so I considered speaking on something related to that topic, as I have done in the past–what makes a nation great?, the separation of church and state, and similar themes. But as important as these themes are, there’s actually what I would consider an even more important anniversary than celebrating the birth of this nation, that is coming up later this year. And that is the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on October 31st, 2017.
Now I must confess that I am not as much a lover of history as I should be. Some of you are naturally drawn to it, and that’s great. But that is not my natural bent. All those names and dates and events so many years ago aren’t really that appealing to me, and I suspect that they aren’t to some of you, either. So why in the world am I going to subject you to a bit of history here this morning?
Well, the reason is quite simple. In most churches, including my own, and I am sure your church, people often speak about the need for spiritual revival–in our country, in our churches, and in our families. But what exactly brings that about? Well, one way to answer that question is to look at spiritual revivals that have happened in the past. And other than the initial revival that happened under the ministry of Jesus and the apostles in the first century AD, which we read about in the pages of our New Testament, there is one revival that stands out over the past 2,000 years. And it is the Protestant Reformation. So this morning I want to begin by looking at what sparked the Reformation.
So my first point is that Revival happened in the Reformation because of access to and emphasis upon the Bible. The Reformation is generally credited as beginning on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther, a previously little known German monk, posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The issue arose because of Johann Tetzel’s selling of indulgences nearby. These indulgences allegedly allowed Christians to buy time off of purgatory for themselves or for their loved ones. [Tetzel was a master marketer, and his slogan was: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, The soul from purgatory springs!” (Sobald der Pfennig im Kasten klingt, die Selle aus dem Fegfeuer springt) [McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, 47]. Of course, what it really did was raise money for the church. And Luther argued rightly that the grace of God could never be bought or sold, but was only available through faith. Luther himself had come to faith once he studied and understood the Book of Romans, that justification (being right with God) was by grace through faith, and there were no human works which could accomplish that. So God’s forgiveness was given freely, not something bought or sold, and it was available to any person, rich or poor. (McGrath, Reformation Theology, 81). Now Luther’s theology developed over the next few years as he continued to study the Bible, and he was ordered to recant his writings at the diet (assembly) of Worms in 1521 or be killed as a heretic. Here he stood before the most powerful ruler of the day, the Emperor Charles V, and all the other important political 2 and religious figures, being told to recant or be killed. And Luther boldly said, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason (I do not accept the authority of popes and councils because they have contradicted each other), my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. So help me God. Amen.” When Luther was subsequently condemned as a heretic, he was then kidnapped by a benefactor and given protective custody at the Wartburg Castle. What did Luther do during this period of enforced isolation? Well, he translated the Bible into the German language. Previously the Bible was available only in the Latin Vulgate, not in German–but that was fine with the Church since only the Pope and his emissaries were supposedly able to interpret the Scriptures anyway, so whether a common person could read the Bible was of little consequence. Meanwhile, over 100 years previous to that, in 1382 John Wycliffe was responsible for translating the Bible into English, and like Luther, he was severely condemned by the authorities with his works being branded as heretical. In 1415 John Huss, a Bohemian (Czech) preacher, was also deemed a heretic for condemning the practices of the Church (including the sale of indulgences), stating that the Scripture was the only guide for faith and practice, not the Church. Huss’s own transformation occurred because of the writings of Wycliffe that spurred him to read and trust the Scriptures. He said that he “[desired] to hold, believe, and assert whatever is contained in them as long as I have breath in me.” And for that he was burned at the stake.
Now I want to stop here for a moment and emphasize one key statement. Christianity has always been, and always will be, counter-cultural in a pagan world. For sure that was true with Jesus, who was counter-cultural in what He taught and who he associated with, because He based His teachings on the Word of God, not the traditions of men. And that was same for the apostles, who said “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). And the same was true for Paul, who was imprisoned for preaching the gospel. In Wycliffe’s and Huss’s and Luther’s day their teachings and writings were condemned because they were standing by the Scriptures rather than the unbiblical practices of a corrupt church. And the same is true today, as increasingly we find that genuine Christianity, that is, Bible-based Christianity, is no longer part of our culture. So as our culture continues to advocate things that the Bible clearly condemns (such as marriage between a man and a man, or a genderless society, or the universe being the product of pure chance rather than God’s creative design, or who knows what else), if we uphold the Scriptures, you and I will be counter-cultural as well. And we will likely be ridiculed for our supposedly antiquated beliefs by those who are considered “in the know.” So my question is, are you and I going to give into our prevailing culture on these issues, or are we going to stick with the Bible, which is the infallible Word of God? It should not surprise us that Bible-based Christians are under attack in today ’s culture, and we should be prepared to deal with it.
Ok, back to my first point, which you may have forgotten by now, so I’ll repeat it: Revival happened in the Reformation because of access to and emphasis on the Bible. What Luther did (and Wycliffe and Huss before him) was to emphasize the 3 teachings of the Bible rather than the teachings of the church or Popes or anyone else. That’s how Luther was first saved, as I mentioned, when reading and studying the Book of Romans. But what did Luther do next? Well, he began translating the Bible into the common language of the people, German, so that they might have the same access to the Scriptures as he did! That might not have amounted to all that much, without the providential invention of the printing press by Gutenberg 80 years earlier in 1440. And one of the first things Gutenberg printed was a copy of the Latin Bible in 1454. But now all the writings of Luther (in small pamphlet form. written in the common language German, not the scholarly Latin) and copies of the Bible were widely accessible to the public inexpensively in their own language. [McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, 51: Luther wanted to reach beyond an academic readership and touch the hearts and minds of ordinary people. Luther's decision to publish in German was iconic, in that it made a statement about the inclusive nature of the reformation he proposed to pursue. To publish in Latin was to exclude the ordinary people. To publish in German was to democratize the debate about the future of the church by including those who were traditionally marginalized by the use of the ancient scholarly language. From that moment onward, one of the hallmarks of Protestantism would be its use of the vernacular at every level. Most importantly of all, the Bible would also be translated into the language of the people] And that’s how Luther’s ideas, and more importantly how the study of the Bible itself, became commonplace rather than obscure. “Everything the Reformers said about the priesthood of all believers was rooted in the assumption that people could have access to the Bible in their own language. Thus, Luther and the other Reformers worked to translate the Scriptures so that no priest, pope, or council needed to stand between the plowboy and the Word of God.” [Christian History, issue 28, 1990]
Now I need to wrap this first portion of the message up, so I simply want to emphasize the primacy of the Bible in the Reformers’ teachings. Of course, a popular way to refer to the views of the Reformers is by the five “solas”: Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority; Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ; Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone; Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King; and Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone. But that first Sola, “Sola Scriptura,” the Scripture alone is our authority, is what gave rise to all the others, because justification by grace through faith in Christ alone is precisely what the Bible teaches.
So in the Reformation churches, even the furniture placement was different: instead of the altar occupying the central position, the pulpit did: as one historian puts it, “For Rome, the service revolved around the altar, but for the Reformers, the pulpit was given the position of priority. For Rome, the Latin Mass was the central event, but for the Reformers, it was the Word of the living God preached and proclaimed in the vernacular for the salvation and edification of the saints” (Matthew Barrett, Reformation Theology, 48). And this was reflected in the Reformers’ preaching, as they usually preached verse by verse through the books of the Bible: they “expounded the meaning of the biblical text, explaining the biblical author's intent, only to apply the text to their listeners. The point of the passage became the point of the sermon. ...the Reformers ... preached through books of the Bible, often chapter by chapter and verse by verse.
Calvin, for example, expounded his way through entire books of the Bible. [He preached 9 or 10 times each week, including Monday through Friday at 6 in the morning! TSB] Typically, Sundays were occupied with the New Testament (though he did preach a series on the Psalms on Sunday afternoons), and weekdays were devoted to the Old Testament: 159 sermons on Job, 200 sermons on Deuteronomy, 48 sermons on Ephesians, 65 sermons on the Synoptic Gospels, 194 sermons on 1-2 Samuel...the Reformation was first and foremost about the Word of God, which the people of God needed more than anything else” (Barrett, Reformation Theology, 57). Now in light of all of this, most people hearing preaching at least 7 times a week, pardon me if I don’t get a little perturbed at some even in my own church who think that the sermon times at some local churches, one time a week, should be shortened. Really? What are we saying about the primacy of Scripture when we advocate that? As J. C. Ryle wrote 140 years ago: “ it was the reading, and circulation of the Scripture which mainly established the cause of Protestantism in England, in Germany, and Switzerland. Without it the people would probably have returned to their former bondage when the first reformers died. But by the reading of the Bible the public mind became gradually leavened with the principles of true religion.... The people knew too much. They had seen the light. They had heard the joyful sound. They had tasted the truth. The sun had risen on their minds. The scales had fallen from their eyes. The Bible had done its appointed work within them, and that work was not to be overthrown. ” [“Bible Reading,” in Practical Religion, 1878, pp. 97-139]. If we want revival, we need to emphasize the primacy of reading and preaching Scripture just as the Reformers did 500 years ago. The effects are truly revolutionary and counter-cultural.
So that’s my first point about revival, a historical one: Revival happened in the Reformation because of access to and emphasis on the Bible. Second, and following directly from that point, Our revival today begins with being saturated with God’s Word. It’s exactly the same process. Yes, lots of things have changed in 500 years, but if we want revival today, we need to be saturated in the Word of God. Not sprinkled, but saturated. Now since I have already argued that it’s the Bible that is primary, and yet I’ve spent all of our time thus far on a brief but important history lesson, I better establish this point from the Scriptures! And so I’ve chosen Psalm 119 as the text. Psalm 119 has 176 verses, so sadly I won’t be preaching verse by verse through it, or I will get booted out of here before I get through the first few sections! Instead, I will simply highlight various verses. Why did I pick Psalm 119? Well, because it’s all about the Word of God! It has 22 sections of 8 verses each, and it is an alphabetic acrostic: each section begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet–the first section begins with aleph, the next 8 verses with beth, and so forth, all the way through the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. So it is in essence saying that this is the “A to Z” or a complete and thorough explanation of the priority and importance of the Word of God. Now if you want the condensed version of the Psalm, Psalm 19:7-11, which was read this morning, and which I preached on here at UBF two years ago (August 9, 2015), sums it up nicely. But think about this for a moment: Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the entire Bible, by far. And what’s it all about? The importance of the Word of God. So what does it say about the Scriptures?
First, God’s Word is authoritative. There are eight words that are commonly used as synonyms for God’s Word here in Psalm 119. In my message on Psalm 19, I went into some details on each word used there, but here I will simply summarize. It is God’s Word, that is His truth because it is His self-revelation; it is His Saying, emphasizing that it is God’s speech, not man’s; it is God’s Law, to be obeyed as such; they are His Testimonies, a faithful witness of God’s Word; they are His Precepts, a set of divine principles to follow; they are His Statutes, engraved in stone, speaking of the binding force and permanence of His word; they are His Commandments, emphasizing that they are divine decrees, not suggestions; and they are His Judgments, speaking of divinely rendered verdicts. As the judge of all the earth, His verdict is final. All of these words emphasize the authority of God’s word. Since virtually every verse has this theme, I won’t belabor the point. We don’t get to pick and choose which Scripture we like and which Scripture we don’t: all of it is God’s authoritative Word.
Second, God’s Word is reliable. It isn’t enough to be authoritative. A dictator can be authoritative, but he isn’t always right. God’s Word is reliable. Psalm 119:89 says, “Forever, O Lord, Your Word is settled in heaven.” It is unchanging! Some of my favorite computer programs get “updated,” “new and improved!,” but they aren’t “new and improved! and they take certain features away. Some of you are old enough to remember the New Coke fiasco back in 1985: Coke decided to change the formula of its flagship product, and they took the old product off the market, replacing it with a sweeter version. The backfire was intense and quick, and within 3 months (77 days!) they reintroduced the old Coke brand (which they labeled Classic Coke for a while). [Sadly, politicians often do the same thing, changing their position on issues when they become unpopular]. Well, God isn’t like that. He doesn’t change His standards from one generation to the next. He doesn’t do a marketing test or take a poll to judge public opinion. His Word is reliable and it doesn’t change. Psalm 119:151-152 says, “All Your commandments are truth. Long ago I have known from Your decrees that You have established them forever.” Psalm 119:160 says, “The entirety of Your word is truth, and all Your righteous judgments endure forever.”
Third, God’s Word is relevant. It’s just as relevant to today’s culture as when it was written. Cultures may change, but the basic human condition has not changed. And so God’s Word speaks with practical relevance to every culture in every period of history in every place across the globe. Let me list just a few of the many ways that the Bible is relevant to us today.
First, it is relevant because it provides direction. Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” We don’t have to walk in darkness, because God’s Word illuminates the path of life. When we have to make a decision, it provides the way to go. Psalm 119:130 says the same thing: “The unfolding of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple.” It also helps us to avoid error. Psalm 119:104 says, “Through Your precepts I get understanding; Therefore I hate every false way.” Because it gives us wisdom and discernment, God’s Word guards us against going down the wrong path.
Second, it is relevant because it produces purity. How do we avoid sin and impure thoughts? By saturating ourselves in God’s Word. John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress, wrote in the cover of his Bible, “Either this book will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from this book.” That’s why we need to keep reading the Bible even when we least feel like it, because that is often our time of greatest need! Psalm 119:9 and 11 say, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word...Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You!” And Psalm 119:37 says, “Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things, And revive me in Your way.” I know there have been all kinds of temptations in every age, but it seems to me that the availability of pornography and other worthless things through the airwaves and the internet makes this a huge issue. What is the antidote? Saturating ourselves with the Word of God. As Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Third, it is relevant because it provides reassurance and peace during trials. Now maybe some of you haven’t gone through any trials, so this doesn’t apply to you! Well, I seriously doubt that! Now sometimes the Word needs to correct us when our trials are of our own making. Psalm 119:67 says, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.” And Psalm 119:71 says, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” But most of the times in this psalm, the psalmist speaks of going through trials unjustly. For instance, Psalm 119:23 says “Even though princes sit plotting against me, your servant will meditate on your statutes.” Psalm 119:143 says, “Trouble and anguish have overtaken me, Yet Your commandments are my delight.” And Psalm 119:161-162 says, “Princes persecute me without a cause, But my heart stands in awe of Your word. I rejoice at Your word As one who finds great treasure.” And finally, v. 165 says, “Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.” The point is that when we have trials, when others may be saying things against us, or other issues of life afflict us, it is easy to see those as the only important things, and focus our minds on that. But when we look at God’s Word it provides us with perspective, it provides us with peace and reassurance that the promises of God are far more important than the threats of men or the various trials we may be undergoing.
And finally, God’s Word is relevant because it brings revival and delight. Now you may not really be interested in this, but the reason I was drawn to Psalm 119 in the first place was not just that it was the longest chapter in the Bible, and that it was all about the preciousness of God’s Word. It also is filled with verses about revival, more than any other passage! In fact, the phrase translated “revive me” is a particular form (piel imperative) of the Hebrew verb “to give life,” and used with the 1st person pronoun suffix “me” it occurs nine times in this chapter, and nowhere else. So do you want revival? Well, you need to turn to Psalm 119! V. 23 says, “My soul clings to the dust; Revive me according to Your word.” V. 37 (which we already looked at): “Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things, And revive me in Your way.” V. 40: “Behold, I long for Your 7 precepts; Revive me in Your righteousness.” V. 88: “Revive me according to Your loving kindness, So that I may keep the testimony of Your mouth.” V. 107: “I am afflicted very much; Revive me, O LORD, according to Your word.” V. 149: “Hear my voice according to Your loving kindness; O LORD, revive me according to Your justice.” V. 154: “Plead my cause and redeem me; Revive me according to Your word.” V. 156: “Great are Your tender mercies, O LORD; Revive me according to Your judgments.” and V. 159: “Consider how I love Your precepts; Revive me, O LORD, according to Your loving kindness..” Continually in these passages, revival is paired with God’s Word. It is God’s Word that refreshes us, revives us, gives us life, and yes, even delights us! Nine times as well the psalmist says that God’s Word brings delight (16, 24, 35, 47, 70, 77, 92, 174). I’ll just mention a few of these: v. 35: Make me walk in the path of Your commandments, For I delight in it.” V. 92: “Unless Your law had been my delight, I would then have perished in my affliction.” and V. 174: “I long for Your salvation, O LORD, And Your law is my delight.” The Psalmist in Psalm 1:2 says the same thing: “But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night.”
So, why should we study and be saturated in God’s Word today, just as in the time of the Reformation? Because God’s Word is authoritative, it is reliable, and for sure, it is relevant: it provides us direction, it produces purity, it provides reassurance and peace during trials, and it brings revival and delight.
Now perhaps you have been saying to yourself during this message, well, this is all fine and good, but brother, don’t you know that this is a Bible-believing church? So this sermon doesn’t apply to me. Really? And how are you evaluating your Bible knowledge? Are you comparing yourself to somebody else you know who maybe doesn’t even go to church? Would you like me to hand out a little quiz to test your Bible knowledge of all 66 books? You know, I did this in my Sunday School class before we started a series on the Minor Prophets a year ago (January 2016), and gave them a simple quiz, and my class is made up of fabulous, knowledgeable, intelligent believers, but, well, let’s just say that they did rather poorly. So I’m sorry, I just don’t buy it!
How to get started. But let’s say that you agree with me that the most important ingredient in our revival is to be saturated with God’s Word. How do we go about that? Let me give you a few quick tips.
1) First, get started today. Don’t put it off if you believe that the Lord is prompting you through this message. Set a plan in motion if you don’t already have one.
2) Second, make the plan according to your own situation. If you’ve never read the Bible through, you may want to start there. I did this when I was 13 years old and in a hospital bed for a month because I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and almost died. And I decided that I needed to get serious with God in whatever time I had left in my life. So I read the Bible through, front to back, in a year. I’m not sure that was the best way to do it, frankly, since some days I just read through pretty quickly, to check off that I had done it. But it’s a start–it was for me, and it will be for you. I suggest using one of the on-line aids to reading the Bible in a year. I recommend those that have you reading a little from the OT and some from the NT each day. The Navigators has a great-looking plan available online that has you reading a little from four sections (the gospels, the other NT books, the poetical books, and the other OT books) each day. You may want to take two years rather than only one. If you’ve already read the Bible through at least once, then you may want do a more focused reading, study, and meditation on a book or a section that you are least familiar with. But make a plan and stick to it: don’t beat yourself up over it–make it realistic. The idea is to start simply but build up your reading time as you continue.
3) Third, read humbly, prayerfully, expectantly, and with a view to applying the Scripture to your own life. Just reading without meditating on it and applying it just gives you a lot of knowledge, but not much spiritual renewal. James 1:22 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
4) Fourth, if you’re not already in a Bible study group here at church or elsewhere, I’d strongly recommend getting involved. It can be a great encouragement to study the Bible with others, and it also provides some measure of accountability.
5) Finally, don’t make excuses as to why this won’t work for you, because you don’t have the time. I’m convinced that we make time for the things we really want to do. And if you need more convincing that reading the Bible is something that you really want to do, then I suggest an essay entitled “Bible Reading” by J. C. Ryle, that was written 140 years ago. It’s available easily on the internet. If that essay doesn’t stir you up, then, well, humanly speaking, you’re not going to get stirred up.
If we want revival in our country, in our church, and in our families, it begins with us. Yes, we need to be seeking the Lord in prayer, we need to repent of the sins in our life, but above all, we need to saturate ourselves with the Word of God and apply its transforming power and counter-cultural principles to our lives each day
Dr. Todd Beall (Aug 8, 2017)