Month: March 2017

Protestant Profiles: #1 Martin Luther

Today marks 31 weeks until 31st October – the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. To celebrate, Lion & Phoenix will feature 31 notable Protestant Christians in a series called Protestant Profiles. Picking just 31 figures from five centuries means there will be notable omissions and I am conscious that there will potentially be disagreement from readers as to the particular merits of the selections, exclusions and overall diversity reflected in the series. Thus, I submit this not as a comprehensive or authoritative list, but as a collection of noteworthy figures from our evangelical heritage, whose lives and ministries are worth commemorating as we celebrate the Reformation this year.

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Born: Eiselben, Thuringia (modern Germany)
Role: Augustinian monk, university lecturer, theologian, pastor, Reformer, founder of Lutheranism
Theological emphases: Repentance; justification by faith alone; authority of Scripture; priesthood of all believers; predestination; “theology of the cross”
Protested against: indulgences; abuses of papal authority; Catholic sacramentalism; free-will theology

 

Introduction

Probably not much can be said about Luther that hasn’t been said already. His attempt to initiate a proper theological debate about the appropriateness of ‘indulgences’ (more on this below) in the practice of the Church in 1517 led to him becoming one of the most significant figures in Church History and in recent Western history.

To borrow a football analogy, Luther did not do all of the work on the field that contributed to the lengthy process that was the Protestant Reformation – nor did he necessarily score the most goals during his playing career. But he was something of a squad captain for the three decades between his nailing of 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door and his death – providing inspiration and leadership to many Christians throughout Europe. And he most certainly had the God-ordained privilege of executing the kick-off – though no one (but God) could have known that at the time.

Life & Ministry

Luther had an interesting spiritual journey, becoming an Augustinian monk at age 22, as a result of a panicked vow (see the more extensive biography linked below). Prior to the Reformation, Luther underwent an intense crisis of personal faith that led to a significant process of spiritual formation – in which he discovered what would become one of the central emphases of the Reformation.

Luther’s insight came through wrestling with the meaning of two phrases in Romans 1:17 –  “the righteousness of God” and “the just (or ‘righteous’) shall live by faith.” If the righteousness of God was divine justice directed against the sinner, Luther considered himself and other transgressors to have no basis for hope of eternal life. But if the righteous lived by faith – perhaps the Christian’s hope came through trusting in the saving work of Christ and their righteousness depended on Him rather than some unobtainable, perfect moral obedience to God’s revealed will.

This developed into the doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’ – whereby the believer’s right standing before God came solely through trusting in the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God as the basis of salvation. This removed the possibility of contributing to one’s salvation by good works or extrabiblical rituals prescribed by the Church.

But while this doctrine emerged as a signature emphasis of Luther (he later wrote that justification by faith was “the main hinge on which religion turns”) and Protestantism, it was not the point of contention that ignited the Reformation. The Reformation in fact sprung out of Luther’s pastoral concern for his congregation being harmed by false teaching and practices which had the official endorsement of the Vatican.

Luther’s 95 theses heavily criticised the Catholic practice of selling indulgences: a means of reducing the time that a person (or their deceased relatives) might spend in purgatory (a kind of cross-between a waiting room and an offshore detention centre where people awaited admission into heaven, after being appropriately purified of any remaining sinful taintedness that would make them unfit for heaven). Apparently this practice had been widely embraced by people under his pastoral charge when a friar named Tetzel came to Wittenberg spruiking indulgences in a highly ostentatious and avaricious manner.

The 95 theses addressed the nature of true repentance; the role of the Pope in granting remission of penalties for sin; false assurance based on indulgences and abuses of power and doctrine by those peddling indulgences as a means of pardon. Luther did not initially reject the idea of purgatory, indulgences or papal authority – that came later as he saw the unwillingness of the papacy to stamp out the abuses of the practice. But he wrote as a concerned Catholic who felt that error was being promoted in the name of the Pope and the local archbishop. Luther’s concerns were not well received by the hierarchy of the Church, but found acceptance amongst many Christians who could see the problematic nature of these practices.

As the Church became increasingly hostile towards Luther and his teachings, Luther continued to go where his reading of the Bible led him. In many cases this took him on a path of significant departure from Roman dogma and therefore increased suspicion that he was a rogue preacher or even a heretic. He was excommunicated in 1520 by an official Catholic edict known as a ‘papal bull’ and called before an Imperial assembly the following year, now known as the Diet of Worms. Upon being urged to reject his own teachings – which by now included an insistence on the true authority of Scripture above the false authority of the papacy; exchanging the select priesthood of the Church for a priesthood of all believers and denial of five of the seven traditional Catholic sacraments – Luther refused on the grounds that he must be convinced of error by Scripture not by official church teaching. He famously declared his steadfastness to the assembly with the phrase: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Significance

Luther is significant because of his willingness to challenge grossly unbiblical practices with biblical truth and for tenaciously following through on his convictions – despite the enormous risk and cost involved in where they led him. We are indebted to his love for the Scriptures and the Gospel, which the Holy Spirit graciously birthed in his heart for the benefit of millions across continents and throughout the centuries.

Why not read Luther’s 95 theses for yourself here? Or delve into a deeper account of his life, ministry and significance here and here.

 

Main Source: “Luther,” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals

Protestant before it was Cool: Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe & Jan Hus

As part of the countdown to celebrations of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in October, Lion & Phoenix will run a weekly series called “Protestant Profiles” – featuring notable Protestant Christians from across the 5 centuries. This post is the second of two “prelude” posts, introducing significant figures who contended for the faith in significant ways in the centuries of Church History before the Reformation of 1517. 

In our last post, we looked at three notable contenders for Christian orthodoxy in the early centuries of the Church. Each of them defended the truth as bishops of the Church, against heresies that threatened to corrupt the faith. Though each of the false teachings they faced off against gained significant ground and threatened to do enormous damage, Irenaeus, Athanasius and Augustine successfully upheld biblical doctrine and saw the defeat of the gospel-tainting Gnosticism, Arianism and Pelagianism.

Fast forward several centuries and the biggest problems the Church faced did not come from a pseudo-Christian sect like the Gnostics, or an aberrant priest or monk like Arius or Pelagius. Over the years, error and falsehood became entrenched in the Church and the corruption was proliferated by the Church’s hierarchy from the top down.

Popes and bishops formulated novel doctrines that had no solid basis in Scripture; placed conditions on salvation that were not taught by Jesus and the apostles and became entangled in scandalous lifestyles of extravagance, political machinations and immorality. Many in Christendom would have held objections towards these kind of abuses of clerical power. But since the clergy dominated society and comprised the majority of the educated class who could read the Scriptures, most ordinary people would have lacked the capacity to openly question the church leadership or agitate for reform.

But three notable figures did take an open stand against the Church’s unbiblical doctrines and horrendous moral transgressions. They began as dissidents within the Church, but were forced out or killed by ecclesiastical powers who were unwilling to change. Their protests may have seemed like ripples and breeze in a Church that was being tossed about by waves and carried by every wind of doctrine (Eph 4:14), but they were the sign of the reform that was coming in the 16th century.

 

Peter Waldo (c. 1140-1218)

 

Born: Lyons, France
Role: Merchant-turned-mendicant preacher, founder of Waldensian movement
Emphases: Poverty and simplicity over worldly riches; lay preaching missions; translation of Bible into vernacular language (in this case French)
Opposed: Rome; purgatory; transubstantiation

 

Peter Waldo was a wealthy French merchant who was moved by the radical example of an early Christian ‘saint’ to consider a life simplicity and poverty in following Christ. This solidified into a conviction when he considered the encounter between Jesus and the rich young ruler in the Gospels and the implications he regarded this episode as having for ordinary Christians.

After ensuring that his wife had sufficient financial resources, Waldo gave away much of his considerable wealth and began to live and preach among the poor. He gained a following and sent missionaries out to the vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society – to share in their life and teach them the Bible.

Waldo practised his convictions without authorisation from the local bishop and emphasised themes that seemed to run counter to Catholic teaching and practice, while also challenging the biblicality of certain, long held Church doctrines (see above). Naturally this brought him into conflict with the Church hierarchy and he was forced to give a defence of his views in Rome.

At the Third Lateran Council of 1179, Waldo’s views did not receive a favourable assessment from the assembled Church hierarchy. Waldo went into effective exile and his movement established a kind of wilderness base in the mountainous regions of Southern France and Piedmont, Italy. Their continual disobedience towards directions from the Catholic hierarchy naturally led to the Waldensians being excommunicated from the Church in 1184.

They were viciously persecuted in the years following Waldo’s death, but survived throughout the centuries, until they found a natural home in Protestantism when it emerged in the 16th century. Waldo was ground-breaking in that he showed that one could oppose the questionable beliefs and practices of the increasingly corrupt Church from a biblical standpoint and be thrown out of communion with the Church for it, without actually being guilty of any heresy.

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John Wycliffe (c. 1320-1384)

Born: Northern England
Role: Oxford University Professor; Theologian; Bible Translator; Reformer
Emphases: Simplicity and humility of Christian life; “invisible church of the elect” (Shelley, 227); biblical authority; Bible translation
Opposed: Clerical abuses of power and luxuriousness; Papal authority; transubstantiation; idolatry

 

Around a century after Waldo’s death, another man in another country, but with similar concerns took the fight to the malpractice and misleadings of the Catholic Church.

John Wycliffe was a notable English intellectual at Oxford University and his sharp mind, passionate personality and love for the Scriptures uniquely placed him to take issue with many of the things that were amiss in his Church. Wycliffe promoted the Mediation of Christ, as the connection between Christians and God, over and against the Catholic system of over-mediation via priests and sacramental masses. Because of the way the pope (or at that time ‘popes’) conducted himself, Wycliffe came to see him not as the legitimate head of Christ’s body on earth, but instead as a ‘limb of Lucifer’ and even the Antichrist.

Shelley writes: “In time, Wyclif challenged the whole range of medieval beliefs and practices: pardons, indulgences, absolutions, pilgrimages, the worship of images, the adoration of the saints, the treasury of their merits laid up at the reserve of the pope and the distinction between venial and mortal sins.” Eventually he significantly undermined the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation: that the bread and wine in the Eucharist ceremony become the Body and Blood of Christ in a literal sense. This stance was too radical for some of his powerful political allies – though he retained some key supporters in English society who protected him as the Church became increasingly hostile.

Wycliffe’s love and reverence for the Scriptures made him determined to them accessible to as many people as possible in their own language (rather than Latin). He drove the translation of the New Testament from the Latin Vulgate to English – a legacy reflected in the name of one of the world’s foremost Bible translation ministries to this day.

Similar to Waldo, Wycliffe also sent out preachers to reach people of all walks of life with biblical truth. His followers, often called ‘Lollards’ were not well tolerated by Catholic authorities and Wycliffe himself was posthumously excommunicated by the Church after his teachings were increasingly seen as unacceptable in the early 15th century.

Wycliffe has rightly been called the “Morningstar of the Reformation,” as he heralded many of the issues and points of protest that would arise again in just over a century after his death.

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Jan Hus (1369-1415)

 

Born: Husinetz, Bohemia (Czech Republic)
Role: University lecturer; Rector of Bethlehem Chapel; Reformer
Emphases: Preaching in local language; inherited Wycliffe’s emphases
Opposed: Papal selling of indulgence; idea of Pope as Head of Church;

 

After Wycliffe, came yet another man in yet another country, but with many of the same emphases. Jan Hus was a Bohemian scholar and preacher who enthusiastically adopted many of Wycliffe’s positions and instigated a religious reform movement within his homeland.

Again, Hus took issue with clerical abuse of power; teachings about the Eucharist; and the sale of indulgences. He was excommunicated for his teachings and later the entire city of Prague was placed under papal interdict on his account: meaning that effectively all Christians in the area were suspended from participating in the life and sacraments of the Church until further notice.

Hus left the city so the interdict would be lifted, but continued to preach his beliefs and incur the ire of the Church authorities. Eventually he was executed by religious authorities for refusing to recant his beliefs, including those he shared with Wycliffe.

Hus was a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation a century after his death and had an influence upon Martin Luther, the seminal figure of that movement. Like Waldo and Wycliffe, he left behind a community of followers who continued to struggle for what he believed in for many years after his death. Through them, Hus was also an indirect influence on the Moravian and Wesleyan/Methodist movements that emerged much later.

 

If Luther, Calvin and the other figures of the Reformation, who we’ll look at in coming weeks, had known Billy Joel’s refrain “We didn’t start the fire” – they might have used the phrase in reference to Waldo, Wycliffe and Hus. These three men did not see the Church reformed to the degree that Luther & co. did, but it is hard to imagine the Reformation of the 16th century without these voices of dissent against the wayward path of the Church echoing down from earlier history.

As we’ll see next week, Luther had some central emphases that were distinct from his predecessors, and yet we find him repeating many of the charges and concerns against the Church hierarchy that had been expressed by those before him.

 

 

Main sources for this article are Wikipedia and Shelley’s standard text, Church History in Plain Language.

Faithful, Fighting ‘Fathers’: Irenaeus, Athanasius & Augustine

As part of the countdown to celebrations of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in October, Lion & Phoenix will run a weekly series called “Protestant Profiles” – featuring notable Protestant Christians from across the 5 centuries. This post is the first of two “prelude” posts, introducing significant figures who contended for the faith in significant ways in the centuries of Church History before the Reformation of 1517. 

Protestantism as we know it did not exist until well into the reforming ministry of Martin Luther and his allies in the 16th century. But while the circumstances were often very different, the Protestant Reformers were hardly the first significant figures in Christian history to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints against dangerous foes.

Some did it from positions of power and influence within the church, to preserve God’s people from infection with deadly, soul-destroying error. Some were deprived of their positions in the face of ascendant heresy and had to fight with a rearguard action to recover the ground seized by heretics. And others still were isolated, but somewhat prophetic voices within a corrupted church that had lost its way: they faced harassment, disparagement and even death.

Three larger-than-life figures from the early centuries of church history demonstrate the same spirit of fighting for the faith that was evident many years later in the Protestant Reformation. Each of them were bishops in the Church, charged with guarding the deposit of the gospel entrusted to them. And each of them was forced to act as a champion of truth when it came under serious threat from false teaching. These are their stories…

Irenaeus (c. 130-202 AD)

Born: Smyrna (modern day Turkey)
Role: Bishop of Lugdunum, Gaul (Lyons, France)
Opponents: Gnostics (incl. Valentinus)

Irenaeus is one of the most significant early church figures, reportedly learning Christianity from Polycarp, who was connected to the Apostle John. The apostle himself seems to have already been addressing a nascent form of gnosticism during his lifetime, with the epistles 1 & 2 John condemning any teaching that denies Jesus had really come in the flesh as an authentic human being. Gnosticism held the dualistic view that spirit was pure and good and matter (including the human body) was inconsequential at best, but corrupt and evil at worst. This compromised their understanding of who Jesus was in the most severe way, since they could not accept the idea that he really became incarnate in a physical human body. Gnostics were also generally defined by their insistence that they had secret knowledge that set them apart from others, including Christians who had not joined their sect.

Irenaeus rejected the Gnostic claim to special knowledge and insisted that Christian orthodoxy was transmitted by the apostles and earliest disciples to their successors and plainly expressed in the Scriptures. He also vigorously defended the biblical presentation of Christ’s incarnation: as involving the union of Deity with a fully human nature. Church historian Philip Schaff writes:

The task of Irenæus was twofold: (1) to render it impossible for any one to [confuse] Gnosticism with Christianity, and (2) to make it impossible for such a monstrous system to survive, or ever to rise again. His task was a nauseous one; but never was the spirit enjoined by Scripture more patiently exhibited, nor with more entire success.

He wrote On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis or Against Heresieswhich is a sustained dismantling of Gnosticism. In his introduction, he gives a striking description of theological error (specifically with Gnosticism in mind).

Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced . . . more true than the truth itself.

The forces of early Christian orthodoxy, represented by Irenaeus, triumphed over the nonsensical knavery of Gnosticism – which has since that time remained sidelined by mainstream Christian understanding of theology, Christology and the transmission of religious truth. But Irenaeus’ warning above is a timeless one: the need to remain vigilant against lies dressed up as truth is a constant one.

Little biographical information on Irenaeus is available, but you can read his “Against Heresies” here.

Athanasius (c. 296-373)

 

Born: Alexandria, Egypt
Role: Bishop of Alexandria
Opponents: Arians, Semi-Arians

Athanasius may have began from the vantage point of ecclesiastical power as a bishop, like Irenaeus. But he shares striking similarities with the later Reformers in that he was severely marginalised by religious and political powers and the error he faced was much more successful than Gnosticism at infiltrating and almost seizing control of the Church.

Athanasius’ native Alexandria saw a theological conflict arise between the bishop Alexander and a priest named Arius. Alexander had an orthodox view of the Trinity, teaching that the Son was co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. Arius mistook his views for Sabellianism, an earlier heresy which had been condemned by the Church, and begin to attack Alexander’s teaching. At the core of Arius’ heresy was the belief that Jesus, or the Son, was not eternal and was a lesser, created being in relation to the fully divine Father. Arius accepted the biblical teaching that the Son pre-existed the world and that the Father made all things through Him, but he insisted that there was a time when the Son did not yet exist.

Arius’ heresy became influential amongst a number of Christian leaders and threatened to infect the Church when it gained favour in the imperial court due to Eusebius of Nicomedia, a key ally of Arius. Arius’ views were rejected by the First Nicene Council in 325, where Athanasius put forward the description “consubstantial” (i.e. sharing one substance or essence) to describe the relationship between Father and Son in opposition to the Arian view.
Several lines in the Nicene Creed intentionally oppose his doctrine of Christ.

[I believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;

Arius was banished as a result of the Council condemning his heresy. But just a few short years after the Council’s definitive settling of the issue, Eusebius managed to instigate a resurgence of Arianism in the imperial family and eventually succeeded in having Emperor Constantine exile Athanasius (who had by now succeeded the late Alexander as bishop) from Alexandria and his bishopric.

Athanasius fought tenaciously for biblical orthodoxy and the Christology accepted by the Nicene Council, even though the political and religious opposition he faced often seemed insurmountable. He endured a total of five exiles under various emperors and became identified with the phrase Athanasius contra mundum – “Athanasius against the world.” It was a few years after his death before Arianism finally faded into insignificance, but had Athanasius not contended so vigorously for the truth about Christ for all the years that he did, the heresy could have persisted for much longer and harmed many more souls than it did.

For an excellent biography of Athanasius, visit here.

Augustine (354-430)

 

Born: Thagaste, Numidia (Algeria)
Role: Bishop of Hippo Regius
Opponents: Pelagius, Donatists

Augustine is one of the most significant influences on the entire Western Church (as well as having widespread influence in Eastern Christianity). A fuller treatment of his life and ministry can be found here, but we shall limit our focus to his contentions with the doctrines of a monk named Pelagius.

Pelagius was a moralist who took issue with the way teachings on grace could contribute to loose living. He propounded contrary views to Augustine and others, on matters such as predestination, free will, original sin. Pelagius’ teaching would have seen Christians adopt a fundamentally different view of human nature to what the Bible teaches and along with it a different view of how salvation and sanctification (or growth in holiness) worked in the Christian life.

Augustine argued, against Pelagian teaching, that human nature since the Fall of Adam was severely corrupted and that people had a sin problem, inherited from Adam, from the beginning of their lives. He rejected Pelagius’ view that men, women and children had the power in themselves to choose good over evil and live lives that were pleasing to God. Augustine saw the need for God to change our nature through the work of the Holy Spirit and the good news of the gospel, before our sinful hearts could respond to God in the way He called us to.

Pelagius’ view would have seen people get the glory for their own salvation, by making the right choices to obey God and live holy lives. Augustine insisted that God alone was humanity’s Saviour and only He could set us free from ourselves and the evil within. God chose to save some from out of the countless multitude of rebels in the world, setting His grace upon them and enabling them to be transformed into the likeness of Christ and to live out the obedience of faith.

Pelagian and “semi-Pelagian” ideas are still prevalent in certain sectors of the Christian Church today: even though Augustine won the day and saw Pelagianism condemned by the Church as false teaching.

Augustine was one of the most significant influences on the Protestant Reformation outside of the Scriptures. While Irenaeus and Athanasius serve as early models of contenders for the faith – Augustine contributed directly to Luther, Calvin & co.’s recovery of a biblical view of salvation and grace. His views were very influential in the Catholic Church and remain so to this day, but regrettably the Church ignored part of Augustine’s teaching that it sorely needed.

While the Church did progressively fall into error in later centuries, things would have been immeasurably worse had these three not fought and won their respective battles. Next time we’ll look at three proto-Reformers, who went against the tide in the Catholic Church in an attempt to address some of the serious problems which had arisen.

 

Information for this article largely gleaned from Wikipedia and Shelley’s standard text on Church History. 

Memento Mori – Remember that you will die…

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[1]

 

I haven’t posted anything for nearly a month and the main factor has been lingering illness. For several weeks I was plagued with unpleasant symptoms and diminished capacity. I’m pleased to have recovered enough to have something like a normal week, but I wanted to return to writing with something I reflected upon while sick. Memento Mori. 

In art, religion and culture a memento mori is something that serves as a reminder of the reality of death. Throughout the ages, many people have used iconography, such as pictures of skeletal remains, or activities such as walking through a cemetery, to bring to the front of their minds the fact that they must someday confront death.

Anyone who takes life and spirituality seriously cannot ignore the brevity of earthly life and the imminence of bodily death. To invoke a reminder like a memento mori is to force ourselves to remember our mortal fragility and to make the most of our time on earth, which is oh so fleeting.

For me, being ill served as something as a memento mori. Falling ill does not come with the guarantee of recovery. While we have excellent healthcare in Australia and it’s easy to be melodramatic about one’s symptoms to the point that they seem more severe than they actually are (“man flu” anyone?), relatively young and healthy people can and do die suddenly in this country more often than we’d like to acknowledge. Sickness says, “Even if this isn’t the last struggle, one day this body will give out.” And in the context of eternity, that day is coming sooner than imaginable.

I don’t want to be morbid and obsessive when it comes to the topic of dying. But I think many Christians suffer from the same mental and social avoidance of the subject as our unbelieving neighbours do. If we’re good evangelicals, we talk a lot about the historical and spiritual significance of Jesus’ death: but it seems we are quite proficient at mentally and emotionally divorcing the reality of His death from the rapid approach of our own.

This ought to change. In my life and yours.

In my research recently I’ve revisited the connection between godliness and preparedness for death and eternity in Puritan thought and spirituality. It has been said of the Puritans that for them, “a holy death was . . . the culmination of a holy life.”[2] Everything about life now had eternal realities in view and death was the inescapable passageway between this life and life evermore with God. Thus, dying well was recognised as an important component of the Christian life for many generations before us. And dying well is difficult if you’ve spent your whole life avoiding the subject.

Thomas Watson (the main subject of my research) said that one of the surest ways to grow in godliness was to “think of your short stay in the world.”He adds, “The serious thoughts of our short stay here would be a great means of promoting godliness. What if death should come before we are ready? What if our life should breathe out before God’s Spirit has breathed in? Whoever considers how flitting and winged his life is, will hasten his repentance.”[3]

We are all in danger of failing to heed a warning like Watson’s. There are special seasons where thinking upon death comes more easily. The sudden death of a loved one. The death of someone “before their time.” A serious illness, injury or close encounter with the prospect of death. But next week will see most of us failing to have “serious thoughts” about the end of our lives for a number of reasons.

One is delusion. When the serpent enticed Adam and Eve to rebel against God, he assured Eve that, in contradiction to God’s clear Word: “You will not surely die.”  Part of what allows us to live lives that don’t take death seriously, is to believe a form of this deception. Some days we can live (and sin!) as though we will never have to die. As though God’s Word in Hebrews 9:27 “It is appointed for man to die once and after that comes judgement”, isn’t a reality.

Some of us may fall for a slightly watered down version though, when tempted to go on living in ignorance of eternity and disobedience towards God. Satan may assure us “You will not surely die yet,” “You will not surely die anytime soon.

A chilling example of this is when a friend of mine shared the gospel with a young man in the Brisbane CBD one weekend. The young man was dismissive and left without taking God’s Word to him about sin, salvation and eternity seriously. The youth in question participated in some risky behaviour later that night as part of the “planking” craze sweeping the world at the time. He fell to his death from a building only a few hours after failing to take heed to a message of life and death.

Christians may believe the gospel – but do we treat each day as though it could really be our last. Are we clinging to Jesus with the type of desperation that says we may need the gospel for our dying moments at any time?

Another thing that will stop us from serious consideration is distraction. We may recognise that we need to take death and eternity seriously and agree in principle that these realities should shape our daily lives. But there are just so many things that take our minds other places. So much that needs to be done. So many interesting things to engage the intellect. So many pleasures that beckon us to pursue them for a few minutes or hours instead of contemplating the end of life.

Finally, we can also be desensitised to some of the things that would normally serve as good memento mori to us.  This is especially true of our repetitive exposure to death in news media. Every time we hear about a murder, traffic accident, terrorist attack, fatal disaster or other event resulting in the loss of human life, we should think about our own mortality and whether we’re prepared for eternity (see Luke 13 for Jesus’ take on this). But because we are constantly presented with strangers dying, we can’t seem to bear the emotional toll of always taking such news to heart and so we grow cooler (if not cold…if not callous) towards news of death unless it’s much closer to home.

How might we overcome delusion, distraction and desensitisation when it comes to our need to confront the reality of death? Here are three practical suggestions.

  1. We can intentionally take time to think and speak about death more than we currently do. Turn those nightly news items into memento mori that challenge you to think about the shortness of your own life. Set aside time in your week or month to contemplate death and better prepare for it. Discuss death more openly and frequently with trusted Christian friends: they need to be prepared just as much as you do.
  2. Share the gospel with people more often. Faithfully pleading with others to consider the reality of death and what lies beyond is a good way to keep being reminded of it yourself. A gospel outline like Two Ways to Live brings up the issue of death quite clearly. Others like Way of the Master often lead in with a question like “If you died tonight do you think you’d go to Heaven?” To present the gospel faithfully, you must tackle the reality of death: and not only that of the person you’re sharing with, but your own.
  3. Consider spending time with people who are closer to death or at greater risk of death. If you have trouble confronting death in your day-to-day thought-life and lived experience, it may be helpful to get connected with those who are evidently facing death soon. Spend time with elderly relatives or church members, or visit a local nursing home or hospital.

    I’m not saying we should form relationships with the sick or elderly merely for the sake of turning them into functional memento mori – that would be morbid. There are much wider opportunities for mutual gain in relationships between younger and older generations. However, for the young who find it hard to treat death as something close or even imminent, one way our relationships with the elderly can benefit us is to see how they treat the subject of death when it is undeniably creeping closer.

So whatever you have planned for this week, this month, this year – remember to remember that you will die. Don’t allow the dark hues of death to colour your whole life: the resurrection of Christ enables us to enjoy life now and anticipate the fullness of life beyond death. But equally, don’t live in this world as if death is not something you will have to face and face soon.

To close with the enduring words of C.T. Studd:

Only one life, yes only one,
Soon will its fleeting hours be done;
Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet,
And stand before His Judgement seat;
Only one life,’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
[4]

[1] Pieter Cornelissen “Skulls” flickr (CC BY 2.0)
[2] Dewey Wallace Spirituality of the Later English Puritans (Macon: Mercer University, 1987): 1.
[3] Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1992): 207-208.
[4] You can read the poem in its entirety here: http://paulhockley.com/2016/05/24/quote-only-one-life-twill-soon-be-past-poem-by-c-t-studd/