Luther’s Lessons on Gospel Vigilance

The just-released documentary Luther is an interesting bit of filmmaking. It is artful and professional, and hits on some key points of why the Reformation took place. (Nor does the film shy away from some of Luther’s sins – his late life anti-Semitism, for example, is dealt with head on.) Among the reasons the film is worth seeing is because Christians need constant vigilance for the gospel, and there are parallels between Luther’s day and ours. Close to the end of the film, presenter Barry Cooper issues a caution about the state of Christianity 500 years after Luther. “There is another kind of Reformation on the way. We who live in the West are experiencing it even now, in fact. The social privilege we once enjoyed has been ripped away. Christians [are] increasingly stereotyped as intolerant bigots, socially regressive, or just plain stupid by those who see themselves as progressive. It’s challenging, and increasingly costly for Christians to do what Luther did and stand firm.” He goes on to note that the news is far from dire elsewhere in the world. The gospel is spreading in Africa, South America, and Asia at far higher rates than in traditionally Christian lands. But the message for those of us who do live in the West is, we should be prepared to respond well. Some things to bear in mind:

The Scriptures tell us we are not citizens here. The temptation is always there for Christians to settle down and settle in, not so much physically, but mentally and spiritually. That is, to consider our rights and privileges and to be ready to stand up and fight for them. If that means the courts and legal battles, so be it. We have that right as citizens of our nation. We do indeed have the same rights as others, but Christians should be cautious about a knee-jerk reaction of going to court when we are aggrieved about our rights. Paul is most concerned not with preservation of rights, but with Christian testimony before the world. His immediate context is Christian going to law against other believers, but his concern is how that looks to those outside the faith. As people who have jobs, families, responsibilities and who live in the world with other people, we interact with the those outside God’s family all the time, but the New Testament reminds us that what is seen is temporal, perishing, and what is unseen is eternal. We too easily forget that. Gospel vigilance means this is but a stop on the way to our final destination.

The Scriptures predict we will suffer. All who live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. We spend a lot of time and effort to make ourselves comfortable. That’s understandable, but spiritual comfort is presented in the New Testament as a thing we experience amidst surrounding discomfort. “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.” 1 Pet. 3:14. Paul wrote the Philippians that his imprisonment had actually served to advance the gospel, and he rejoiced in his current state. He wrote to Timothy near the end of his life “And because I preach this Good News, I am suffering and have been chained like a criminal. But the word of God cannot be chained.” (2 Tim. 2:9 NLT). We need to continually remind ourselves that our confidence and comfort come not from making everything right in our lives here on earth, but in the fact that we are redeemed, justified, and seated with Christ in the heavenly places. Persecution and suffering for the gospel – especially for the gospel – should serve to increase our joy and satisfaction in Christ. This is unnatural for us, because our sinful hearts want ease and freedom from suffering. But suffering is also presented as a tool that God uses to prune and refine us. Suffering is the tool of Christian maturity in the believer’s life. Gospel vigilance means we can’t expect we won’t suffer, but our prayer should be that we’ll suffer well.

Church-State separation is a protection for the Church. In Luther’s day, the Church and state were intertwined in such a way that to oppose the Church was to oppose the governing authorities. It was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who called on Luther to recant. The Emperor branded Luther an outlaw, and though it was a local political figure, the Elector Frederick who protected Luther, clearly the winds of politics may blow different ways. Luther knew ultimately that God was his protector. In our own day, the political left likes to portray the wall of church-state separation as ensuring that public and political life is free from the influence of faith, but that is of course not possible. Everyone has a belief system they operate from, and it is impossible to divorce that from one’s decisions. Self-proclaimed atheists do this as much as anyone. The separation enshrined in the U.S. Constitution is as much a protection to the church as anything. In the coming years, I believe this will work itself out through increasing pressure from the government upon churches and para-church organizations conform to societal and legal requirements. This isn’t new. In fact, it’s quite old. The post-apostolic church was a church constantly under threat, and being a Christian was a capital offense. The Roman Empire took a long time to get to toleration of Christianity, then to endorsement. But history shows that endorsement of the faith didn’t help the witness of the church. On the contrary, it ushered in centuries of empty ritual and increasing corruption that culminated in the Reformation. We may be returning to more open hostility toward the faith than in previous centuries, but our response shouldn’t be surprise. D.A. Carson’s 2012 book “The Intolerance of Tolerance” tackles many of these themes, and notes “Just as Christians cannot finally serve God and Money, so they cannot owe ultimate allegiance to the kingdom of God and to an earthly democracy. God is not establishing a democratic republic, but an eternal kingdom in a new heaven and a new earth.”[1] The state, fellow believer, is not our friend. We don’t need the endorsement of the government to proclaim the gospel and live a faithful testimony. It may become costlier to maintain that witness, but this shouldn’t surprise us, and it gives us a meaningful link with the earliest of Jesus’ followers.

Who knows if or when any of us will be called upon to face the sort of opposition that Luther faced. But if we are, let us be as clear on the gospel, and all that it entails, as he was.

[1] D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), p.175.

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