Recovering the Source (90 Days...Part 4)
What was church like on Sunday, 500 years ago? The church itself is staggering, the soaring vaults, the smell of incense and the spectacle of the mass: Christ being re-sacrificed all over again. But you wouldn’t have had much choice as to whether or not to go. There’s images of purgatory and hell assailing you everywhere and the church is omnipresent in life. You definitely go. Can you understand any of the service? Not if you don’t speak Latin, and only the highly educated do. You go into the box and confess your sins to a priest. You have no sense of assurance and no way to address the alarming fact that you still sin. The emphasis is on doing good works to earn your salvation. God seems distant and your predicament is rightly desperate and frightening. Well might you cry, “How on this earth do I get right with God?”
Reading the final section of this book on the Psalms has made me totally shocked at how spiritually needy and starved ordinary people must have felt at this time.
Martin Luther was a young law student when he had a frightening experience stuck in a storm. With lightning flashing around him, he vowed to become a monk if God would only help him. Safely through the storm, though regretting it, he gave up his law studies and kept his vow. He adhered strictly to all the rules of monastic life and yet Luther struggled to find assurance that he really was a Christian.
Luther had the blessing of being highly educated and in his position as a monk had access to the Bible in Latin. While reading the Bible for himself, and particularly the book of Romans, Luther came at last to a comforting assurance that he could get right with God. He discovered in those precious words of Romans 3:23-24 that through Jesus’ work he was right with God even though he was still a sinner. The real Christian was, as one of Luther’s slogans read: ‘simultaneously righteous and a sinner.’
This was information that desperately needed to get out, but the words of God were greatly locked up under the control of the Catholic Church, its Pope and Priests. But God’s words were breaking free.
The Bible Alone
“The words of the LORD are flawless, like silver purified in a crucible, like gold refined seven times.” (Psalm 12:6) It is a magnificent thing, in a world that is used to mistakes, to deceit and to confusion, to be able to read flawless, pure, refined words. And that is what you do each time you open your Bible. God does not make errors in anything he says. He does not obscure the truth, by accident or by design. He does not fail to do anything he has said he will do. (p. 5)
One of the big pillars of the Reformation was The Bible Alone. In England, through the work of William Tyndale, the word of God became available for the first time. Now the Bible was available not just in Latin but in a language that everyone spoke, heard, did business in and many could read - English.
In the Lap of the Ploughboy
If you could read, you could read God’s actual words. Dr Kirsten Birkett in Ideas that Changed the World says, “There are records of people teaching themselves how to read so that they could read the Bible - that’s how exciting it was.”
Think how special it would have been to hold God’s actual words in your hands for the first time. Think of the very message that sends - here is something that you can consume all by yourself. May we experience something of the breath of excitement that must have blown over the pages of those first English Bibles.
The Psalms - The School of God
Calvin on the Psalms is a brilliant guide. The editors have selected nineteen psalms to round off this book and it gave me appetite to read more on my own and to start reading a Psalm a day with my daughter.
While I was writing this post I got really horribly sick. And I have to say, I’m really thankful my brain was still swimming with all the things I’d been reading in this book and in the Bible. I’m ashamed to say that I have very little memorised scripture to hand. It’s on my list. I even bought some blue index cards with the goal of starting. But as I lay on my bed with a fever night after night, little snippets of Psalms swirled in my mind and I prayed them back to God and I begged him to help me. And he did. It’s horrible being in a scary situation, and my heart just gives way with terror thinking of friends enduring really fearsome illnesses. Mine was so fleeting, and it’s passing. God’s word was with me and though I couldn’t read anything my pond was well-stocked. I had fish to pull out.
Psalm 27 - One Thing I Ask
It’s hard to choose just one Psalm to take a look at. Each is glorious in its own way, providing shimmering depth and vision, healing, strength, calm and refreshment, darkness and light. But I especially loved Psalm 27 for its singular vision:
“One thing I ask from the Lord; / it is what I desire: / to dwell in the house of the Lord / all the days of my life, / gazing on the beauty of the Lord / and seeking Him in His temple.” (Psalm 27:4)
“Weighing in the scales the whole power of earth and hell, David accounts it all lighter than a feather compared to God, whose goodness so outweighs all.” (p.245)
David’s sole desire is to be with the Lord. To sing and make music. To offer sacrifices in his tent and shout for joy. That desire obliterates all his fears and anxiety. This gazing on holy ground, this longing is his medicine. He extols himself at the end: “Wait for the Lord; / be strong and courageous. / Wait for the Lord.”
This is how church ought to have looked 500 years ago. Better to sit in a plain house under the word of God - to have it opened and explained - to behold the power, beauty and splendour of his amazing words and his gospel of free grace - that is gazing on the beauty of the Lord! Better by far than a fine cathedral in full spectacle with no verses to recall and no saving grace.
Preparing this blog post has reminded me afresh of some simple basics I take for granted: Firstly, how blessed we are to be able to read and secondly, to have the Bible in the language we speak. The work of Bible Translators goes on. The work of helping kids and adults to become proficient readers goes on. May we do what we can, such as give to organisations like the Bible Society who work to provide Bibles in people’s heart languages and theological colleges like Moore College who train Bible translators. May we show up to school reading programs, and hospital reading programs to promote the enjoyment of the reading life. May we stay involved in book clubs and Bible Study groups.
Thirdly, I’ve been reminded that learning how to read the Bible as it was intended is a skill. As a young person coming along to church for the first time, I clearly remember the preacher’s constant exhortation to check what he was teaching with the open Bible on my lap. Sunday after Sunday he was preaching the Bible to me and though I didn’t know it at the time, he was also teaching me how to read it for myself. A friend of mine over text said to me recently, “We probably had to have this modelled to us a hundred times before it finally clicked!” From the vantage point of many years later I thank him for the hundred times.
The words of our Lord are so precious, so flawless, like silver purified in a crucible, like gold refined seven times. Thank God for these Reformation heroes who recovered the Bible for us and for this wonderful book that has encouraged me to keep reading my own Bible afresh and drink from its life-giving stream. May you continue to have a hunger for God's word.
Writer | Katie Stringer is a lover of books, baking and beaches. She leads a Bible Study at her local Anglican church, All Souls Leichhardt and loves being part of the Leichhardt community. She is married to Andrew and they have two daughters and a son.