Suffering…as a Christian (Luther)

Many of us have read the words of 1 Peter 4:15-16 more than a few times: “If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (NIV). The words are pretty straightforward. They talk about suffering as a Christian – suffering for being a Christian, believing Christian truths, and behaving in a Christian way. Martin Luther nicely talked about these verses in light of Christ’s teaching about cross bearing:

In this way all Christians should suffer and bear the cross; even as Peter says: Not “suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, … yet … as a Christian,” that is, for the sake of the Lord Jesus and His Word and confession. All Christians acknowledge themselves to be poor sinners, and know that through sin they have deserved all the calamities God sends upon them on earth, and many more. They are, indeed, the only ones who acknowledge their shortcomings, weakness and transgressions; for sin’s peculiar punishment is eternal death, and not this or that particular temporal misfortune.

Nevertheless, their suffering is not the punishment for sin, but the real and holy “cross.” His being a sinner and his stumbling and falling occasionally, is not the reason why the Christian is hated by the evil adversary and the world. No, both the devil and the world could well tolerate that, and would be satisfied with the Christian as far as that is concerned. But the Christian holds to the Word and has faith; he put his hope in Christ, the Son of God, and is comforted in His death and resurrection; he fears God and tries to live according to His will; he labors hard, by means of his confession, to persuade others to believe and to come to the knowledge of Christ. This it is that neither the devil nor his tender bride, the world, can endure; this it is that makes Satan rage so terribly against all Christians; this it is that makes him always pursue them, afflicting their bodies with disease and sometimes their property with loss by storms, or hail, or fire, as it was the case with Job. (Job 1.)

And sometimes the devil troubles them with great secret torments of conscience, such as melancholy, sadness, fear, trembling, doubts, dread of death, and like fiery darts of the devil, about which the Psalms lament so much. Of this kind was the temptation of Paul which he mentions 2 Cor. 12: “There was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me…”. And what the world does in this direction is easily seen, especially in times like the present, when poor Christians receive such wretched and horrible treatment.

 Martin Luther, “Ninth Passion-Sermon: Christ Led Away to Be Crucified.—Simon Bears the Cross after Him.—The Women Who Follow Bewail and Lament Him,” in Sermons on the Passion of Christ, trans. Isensee J. T. (Rock Island, IL: Lutheran Augustana Book Concern, 1871), 146–148.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Persecution: Why Doesn’t God Do Something? (Stott)

The Christians who were part of the new church plant in Thessalonica around 50AD knew quite a bit about persecution and suffering. Not only did they receive the Word with much affliction, they also had to deal with ongoing persecution (1 Thes. 1:6; 2 Thes. 1:5, etc.). And it was serious enough that Paul, Timothy, and Silas (the church planters) were very worried about them (1 Thes. 3:1-5). So in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 the Missionary Team reminds the Christians in Thessalonica about God’s justice and perfect judgment. Here are John Stott’s helpful comments on these verses. These comments are helpful for us to think about as followers of Jesus today:

Of course it takes spiritual discernment to see in a situation of injustice (like the persecution of the innocent) evidence of the just judgment of God. Our habit is to see only the surface appearance, and so make only superficial comments. We see the malice, cruelty, power and arrogance of the evil men who persecute. We see also the sufferings of the people of God, who are opposed, ridiculed, boycotted, harassed, imprisoned, tortured and killed. In other words, what we see is injustice—the wicked flourishing and the righteous suffering. It seems completely topsy-turvy. We are tempted to inveigh against God and against the miscarriage of justice. ‘Why doesn’t God do something?’ we complain indignantly. And the answer is that he is doing something and will go on doing it. He is allowing his people to suffer, in order to qualify them for his heavenly kingdom. He is allowing the wicked to triumph temporarily, but his just judgment will fall upon them in the end.

 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Thessalonians: The Gospel & the End of Time, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 147.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 45015

Live Not By Lies! (Dreher)

What does it look like when a country becomes more totalitarian? What should Christians do if they’re living in such a country? Those are two questions (among others) that Rod Dreher asks and answers in his very recently published book, Live Not by Lies. The title of the book is based on a paper that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published in Moscow on February 12, 1974. In that paper, Solzhenitsyn urged the Russian people not accept all the lies and propaganda that the government compelled the people to accept. Even if one can’t change the world, at least he or she can live by the truth rather than by lies.

Dreher’s book has two main parts: 1) Understanding Soft Totalitarianism and 2) How to Live in Truth. In this book Dreher talks about the brutality of communism in the 20th century Soviet Union, capitalism, “woke”, progressivism, the media, Social Justice, history, family, fellowship, suffering, and so on. Although I don’t agree with everything in it, I have really appreciated this book and do recommend it. This book helps us think about going forward faithfully in our situation here in the United States today. It’s a good book to get Christians thinking about how to face the future here if it becomes more and more anti-Christian and more and more totalitarian.

I’ll blog more on this book later, but here are some of my favorite quotes in it:

“…[L]iberal democracy is degenerating into something resembling the totalitarianism over which it triumphed in the Cold War” (p. xv).

“In therapeutic culture, which has everywhere triumphed, the great sin is to stand in the way of the freedom of others to find happiness as they wish” (p. 13).

“Propaganda helps change the world by creating a false impression of the way the world is” (p. 37).

“We desperately need to throw off the chains of solitude and find the freedom that awaits us in fellowship. The testimony of anti-communist dissidents is clear: Only in solidarity with others can we find the spiritual and communal strength to resist” (p. 181).

“There is always this fallacious belief: ‘It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.’ Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth” (Solzhenitsyn, p. x).

Rod Dreher, Live Not by Lies, (New York City: Sentinel, 2020).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Polycarp: “Away with the Atheists!”

For various reasons, it is sometimes difficult to gauge the accuracy of ancient uninspired literature. The ancient methods and customs of writing were often different than they are today. Scholars have spent a lot of time and energy working to learn how accurate various ancient sources are. One such example is the Martyrdom of Polycarp. This letter dates back to around the middle of the second century AD. Polycarp was a bishop of the Christian church in Smyrna. He is mentioned by Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Eusebius, so we do know something about Polycarp.

But back to the Martyrdom of Polycarp. I don’t have time and space here to go into details, but this account is not to be dismissed immediately as fiction. And Christians can for sure learn much from it even today. Here’s one part of the story that always has stood out for me. I’m sure some of you have heard it before. It’s from chapters 8-9:

1 When finally he [Polycarp] concluded his prayer, after remembering all who had at any time come his way—small folk and great folk, distinguished and undistinguished, and the whole catholic Church throughout the world—the time for departure came. So they placed him on an ass, and brought him into the city on a great Sabbath. 2 The captain of police, Herod, and his father Nicetas met him, and took him into their own carriage and seated at his side, tried to persuade him, saying: ‘But what harm is there in saying, “Caesar is Lord,” and in offering incense, and so forth, to be saved? At first he did not answer, but, when they persisted, he said: ‘I am not going to do what you advise me.’ 3 On failing to convince him, they spoke threateningly to him and made him descend so quickly that he bruised his shin as he got down from the carriage. Without even turning around, as though he had suffered nothing, he continued on his way eagerly and speedily, and was led into the stadium. The uproar in the stadium was such that nobody could be heard at all.

1 Upon Poclycarp’s entrance into the arena there came a voice from heaven, ‘Be brave, Polycarp, and act like a man.’ No one saw the speaker, but our people who were present heard the voice. 2 Finally, when he was brought forward, the Proconsul asked him if he were Polycarp; when he admitted it, he tried to persuade him to a denial of the faith, saying: ‘Have regard for your age,’ and other suggestions such as they usually make: ‘Swear by the genius of Caesar; change your mind and say, “Away with the atheists!” ’ Then Polycarp, with solemn countenance, gazed on the whole crowd of lawless pagans in the stadium, waved his hand at them, groaned, looked up to heaven, and said: ‘Away with the atheists!’ 3 As the Proconsul urged him and said: ‘Take the oath and I release you; revile Christ,’ Polycarp said: ‘Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?’ …

 Francis X. Glimm, “The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp,” in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Francis X. Glimm, Joseph M.-F. Marique, and Gerald G. Walsh, vol. 1, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1947), 154–156.

(Note: You can read the entire account on various websites online)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Christian Courage or Christian Compromise? (Guinness)

Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization by [Guinness, Os] Impossible People is an excellent book by Os Guinness that discusses what it means to courageously and faithfully follow Jesus in our Western culture that is more and more antagonistic towards the claims of the Christian faith.  We always need a call to stand up for the truth when the going gets tough.  This applies to our current situation as well, since it is illegal in some places to publicly worship our King, Jesus.  I realize our “quarantine” situation is not a black-and-white one, but whatever the case, we do need to put following Christ and his word first on our list of priorities as his people.   Obedience to him is more important than the laws of man and our own personal health.

After Guinness discussed Christian courage and faithfulness in light of persecution in the East he wrote,

“And what of us in the West? Are we showing that we too are prepared to follow Jesus and his authority at any cost?  When an imperceptible bow would have saved Daniel’s three friends, they defied King Nebuchadnezzar’s idolatry at the threat of being burned alive.  When simply closing a window and drawing his curtains could have saved Daniel himself, he chose to risk the lions rather than mute his allegiance to God.  When a mere whiff of incense would have saved their lives, early Christians refused to acknowledge Caesar as lord rather than Jesus and were made human torches or the evening meal for wild animals.  When it seemed quixotic to take on the emporer, the empress, and all the empire, Athanasius took his stand for truth ‘contra mundum’ (against the world) and was exiled five times for his faithfulness.  When he was told he was arrogant or out of his mind to follow his conscience and defy the consensus of tradition, Martin Luther stood firm in the face of the fiery stake that had cremated Jan Hus before him….

What then of us? Are we living in the light of the great cloud of witnesses and martyrs who have gone before us?  Or in the comfortable conditions of the advanced modern world, where the seductions of modernity are more of a threat to our faithfulness than persecution? In the golden era of the Roman Empire, Pliny the Younger advised Emperor Trajan that Christians should be executed solely for their tenacity and intransigence.  ‘Whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinancy ought not to go unpunished.’  The similar charge in the death of many martyrs was routine: ‘Since they remained unbending, obstinate, I have condemned them.’

Would we be convicted today for being stubborn, tenacious, unbending, and obstinate? It is surely undeniable that only rarely in Christian history has the lordship of Jesus in the West been treated as more pliable or has Christian revisionism been more brazen, Christian interpretations of the Bible more self-serving, Christian preaching more soft, Christian behavior more lax, Christian compromise more common, Christian defections from the faith more casual, and Christian rationales for such slippage more suprious and shameless.

…It is time, and past time, to turn this situation around and take a stand worthy of our Lord – before the cock crows and we are left with the bitter regret that our brothers and sisters around the world stood firm and paid with their lives, but our generation in the West betrayed our Lord in such a pitiful way….

Yes, this is a pretty blunt way of speaking, but also very necessary.  I highly recommend this book if you need an encouraging and motivating read for help on the journey of following Jesus with Christian courage.

Os Guinness, Impossible People, p. 29-30.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002