The Church in Babylon

At our last Education/Discipleship Team Meeting, our team leader, Jerry Mulder, recommended a book entitled, “The Church in Babylon: Heading the Call to be a Light in the Darkness” (Edwin Lutzer). The basic premise is that the contemporary Church is much like the children of Israel when they found themselves in the captivity of Babylon. We, like they, are commanded by God to engage our culture without being spiritually destroyed by it. How do we love, lead, and serve with Christ’s heart and mind in today’s Babylon?

The book is an interesting read if you’re looking for some thought-provoking observations on the role of individual Christians and the place of the church in an increasingly corrupt American culture. But, honestly, I don’t feel I gained a whole lot of new insight, or that I was given very much that made me want to “roll up my sleeves” and get to work. I feel like too much of the book was spent on example after dramatic example of our culture’s depraved condition. However, all that being said, I do want to share this illustration with you this morning because I think it makes an important point and poses a Biblical challenge to all of us.

Dr. Lutzer concludes the book with an appeal to the church in America to faithfully “carry the cross” to the world, especially those whom we find disgusting and repulsive and who seem to be bent on the eradication of Christianity. He challenges us to trust that in God’s eyes, no one is too sinful to be saved. To support his point, Dr. Lutzer tells this story about a Lutheran pastor who was the chaplain to twenty-one Nazis who were hanged in Nuremberg.

The American government decided that there should be a chaplain for these criminals. Most people disagreed, but nonetheless, Henry Gerecke was chosen. He was from St Louis but spoke German fluently, so he was asked to chaplain these criminals. People admonished him. “You should not even shake hands with these men!” He replied, “If they are to believe my message, I have to be friendly to them,” so he shook hands and interacted with them. Among the twenty-one prisoners, there were six Catholics and fifteen Protestants. In the chapel service, some of these Nazis participated in reciting the Lords’s Prayer and even knew the Creed. According to Gerecke, five of these criminals, and possibly seven, came to saving faith in Jesus Christ before they were killed. Ribbentrop, who was Hitler’s foreign minister, before he was executed, said that “he put his trust in the blood of the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world.”

The fact that some of Hitler’s evil henchmen will be in heaven is offensive to many, especially when we realize that some of those whom they tormented might not join them in the Heavenly city. But that’s the “scandal of the cross; ”grace pays no attention to the depths and gravity of our sin. It only asks that we believe the Gospel.”

So whether it’s Daniel in Babylon, or you and me in Hudsonville, we’re commanded by God to engage our culture with the Grace of God, and not a condemning, vengeful spirit. We’re to love, lead, and serve with Christ’s heart and mind in today’s Babylon.

Written by Jim De Horn

The Forgiveness of Sins

I just finished reading a little book entitled, The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism.” The book was written by Ben Myer, and the approach is rather clever. Myer proceeds through the creed phrase by phrase, with the ensuing chapter devoted to the explanation and discussion of that phrase. Believe it or not, chapter one is dedicated to “I,” as in, ”‘I’ believe in God the Father Almighty…” But, relax, most of the chapters deal with more than one word. The chapter that I want to share with you this morning is near the end of the creed, and is, therefore, also near the end of the book. We’re going to discuss the phrase, “the forgiveness of sins” as it appears in the concluding sequence:

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, “the forgiveness of sins,” the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, Amen.”

Now, I never considered that particular phrase to be especially controversial. Phrases like “born of the Virgin Mary,” or “descended into hell,” are very often the topics of heated theological debates. But I guess I naively just assumed that as Christians, we took it for granted that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought about the forgiveness of our sins—all of our sins, regardless of what those sins were or when they were committed. (Ugh, I’m disgusted by my previous sentence. Forgive me, Lord Jesus, for taking for granted that my sins have been forever forgiven through your redeeming sacrifice. Please, Lord, never, never let me take that for granted.)

But back to the history of the phrase, “the forgiveness of sins.” Myer explains that it was a relatively late addition to the creed. He explains that a dramatic debate arose among fourth-century believers about the nature of sin and forgiveness. Christians in those days were still subjected to periods of persecution under the Roman emperors. Diocletian was a brutal tyrant who ordered the seizure of all Christian property, the burning of all holy books, the destruction of all places of worship and the imprisonment of all Christian leaders. He then ordered the execution of everyone who would not sacrifice to his Roman gods. Hundreds of believers were martyred. However, many other frightened Christians caved in and sacrificed to the Roman gods. (Side-note, Diocletian encouraged them to offer their sacrifices en masse, making it easier for them to renounce their faith under the cover of a large crowd.)

By offering public sacrifice to Roman gods, those Christians had effectively renounced their faith in Christ. But when Diocletian died in 311, and Constantine became emperor, Christianity was not only tolerated, it was declared the official religion of the empire. With that, the “apostate” believers came back to the church as if nothing much had happened.

The situation created a crisis. What’s to be done with believers who have renounced their faith? Can they be accepted back? Should there be some kind of public “re-entry” into the church? Should they be baptized again, or made to make a second confession of faith? Or, should they be permanently excluded from participation in the Christian community?

Myer explained that this fourth-century crisis led eventually to clear answers to these questions. Christian teachers argued that the church includes everyone who confesses Jesus. It is not only for the pure and the spiritually successful. Failures in discipleship—even dramatic public failures—do not exclude a person from the grace of God. As Augustine insisted: “We must never despair of anyone at all.” When backslidden believers return to the faith, they don’t need to be re-baptized. They simply need to show, through a changed way of life, that they are trying to take their baptism seriously. There is no need to be baptized [or make confession of faith] more than once since that would imply that we need to be forgiven more than once. The forgiveness of sins has taken place once for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus.”

Because these conclusions were so important, the ancient church began to include the powerful phrase, “the forgiveness of sins” as part of their confessions. It was the Nicene Creed written under the auspices of Constantine that first included the phrase.

I’m hoping that the next time we recite the Apostles Creed, we’ll remember not to take our forgiveness lightly and remember that that forgiveness is extended to all believers, regardless of the sins they’ve committed, or when they committed them.

Written by Jim De Horn

Big Jesus

Why did incarnate Jesus, our Redeemer, come to earth as a baby to an insignificant Jewish couple living in a remote, disregarded area of the world during a time in history when mass communication was yet unheard of? During our recent trip to the Holy Land, Karen and I were taken aback by the “remoteness” and the “smallness” of the Sea of Galilee and the area around it where so much of Jesus’ earthly ministry took place.

Think about this: The calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John, all local fishermen, took place on the shores of Galilee. Matthew, the tax collector, came from the town of Capernaum on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus’ small band of Apostles watched Him calm the storm, and walk on the surface of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus taught crowds of local residents by the shore and on the hillsides surrounding Galilee. And the Lord is believed to have delivered His famous Sermon on the Mount in the steep hills on the north end of Galilee near Capernaum. It was on the Southeast banks of the Sea that Jesus cast demons out of Legion. And before His ascension, He appeared in His resurrected body to seven of His disciples for a final catch of fish, all in the tiny little area of the world around Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee.

All of the early ministries of the Redeemer of mankind took place in a tiny, unimpressive disparaged corner of the ancient world. Remember, even Nathaniel, one of the twelve, when first told that the Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth, said. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Standing on the banks of the Sea of Galilee a person can actually see all of the locations I’ve mentioned in the previous paragraph; they are that close together.

So why did God come to earth and carry out His ministry to redeem His elect, world-wide, from such a tiny, remote, bumpkin kind of place? Why not from New York in the twenty-first century, with absolute indisputable proof of His deity, and with all humanity watching across the entire galaxy at the same time?

I have a theory. I believe God chose to do it the way He did because that way it takes faith to believe in Him. Ephesians 2:8-9 makes it clear that by God’s grace we’ve been saved, through faith, and that faith isn’t of ourselves, it’s a gift from God. A gift that keeps us from claiming any of the credit for our redemption. If Jesus had come as BIG JESUS, the all-powerful, undisputed, undeniable God of all creation, it wouldn’t take any faith to see that He was clearly the Redeemer. It was God’s plan all along that His chosen people would surrender their lives to Him through faith and faith alone (Sola Fide), and not based on eye-witnessed empirical facts.

John 20:29 reads: Then Jesus told him [Thomas], "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

I’m not sure how theologically correct my theory is, but it makes me all the more appreciative of my salvation and in awe of the God who chose me to be saved.

Written by Jim De Horn