Results tagged “Boldness” from Reformation21 Blog

On the surface, Paul's observation in Philippians 1:14 that "most of the brothers" in Rome--where Paul was chained to a member of the imperial guard awaiting the outcome of his judicial appeal to the emperor Nero--had become "more confident in the Lord" and "more bold to speak the word without fear" by virtue of Paul's own "imprisonment" makes absolutely no sense. Paul's imprisonment and the uncertainty of his own fate should have made other Christians in Rome less, not more, bold. It should have cowed them into quiet submission into Rome's inchoate stance against that upstart religion Christianity. How did it produce the opposite result? How did Paul's suffering embolden other Christians?

The answer lies in Paul's attitude towards his unfortunate circumstances, an attitude that he reveals to his readers in considerable psychological detail in Philippians 1:19-26. Paul demonstrates not the fear, worry, and anger that one would expect from someone in his circumstances (i.e., a candidate for capital punishment). He demonstrates, rather, pure joy. He portrays himself as one in the ultimate win-win situation. Either outcome of his appeal to the emperor is, in his judgment, a victory. Either he will be released from prison, and so given further opportunity to proclaim the Gospel and serve the church, or he will be executed, and so step into the inheritance that belongs to him as a believer; namely, life forever in the presence of our triune God. Paul considers death the preferable option: "My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better" (Phil. 1:23). But living has its own reward; namely, the opportunity to convince more and more people to embrace the forgiveness of sins available to them on the basis of Christ's work and so claim a share in that eternal inheritance that Paul himself anticipates. In short, "to live is Christ, to die is gain" (Phil. 1:21).

Paul's attitude towards impending death reflects the posture that C.S. Lewis hoped he might evidence if facing immediate death. Lewis was once asked by a reporter what his response would be if he were to look up in the sky and see a German bomb just about to land on his head. Lewis replied that he would stick his tongue out at the bomb and say, "Phooey! You're just a bomb. I'm an immortal soul." Lewis effectively pointed out, with this response, that Christians need not fear death -- indeed, that they might anticipate death -- because of the hope that belongs to them as believers. Paul, imprisoned in Rome and potentially facing capital punishment, exemplifies the very attitude towards death that Lewis hoped he might display if looking death in the eye. Paul is sticking his tongue out at death; looking death in the eye and grinning rather than flinching.

And that attitude towards death is the very thing that is emboldening other Christians. When Paul sticks his tongue out at death, "most of the brothers" suddenly realize that death isn't so big and bad after all. The worst (as it were) that death can actually do is usher them into the bliss of life forever with God. Suddenly Paul's Christian peers feel able to stick their own tongues out at death (or any other consequence that Rome might throw their way for their witness to Christ's person and work). Their fear evaporates and their own proclamation of the Gospel flourishes as a direct result of Paul's extended tongue. And this is cause, of course, for even greater joy for Paul: "Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice" (Phil. 1:18).

Paul's attitude towards death was a powerful form of proclamation. It was a sermon (of sorts). It's one thing to claim that Christians have a hope for something greater in the life to come, a hope that relativizes their investment in the things of this world. It's another thing to stand before death with your tongue sticking out, demonstrating to the world that you consider this life's pleasures paltry in comparison to those that await you on the other side of death's door.

By the end of Philippians chapter one, Paul is encouraging Christians in Philippi to stick their own tongues out at suffering, and reminding them that their own courage in the face of suffering is itself a form of Gospel proclamation. Christian in Philippi had "opponents" (vs. 28); they were not facing death, perhaps, for their faith in Christ (at least not yet), but they were facing lower grade forms of persecution (the loss of reputation, property, rights, etc.). Their own suffering was, Paul reminds them, part of God's plan for them; indeed, it was a gift from God to them, if rightly understood (Phil. 1:29). Their suffering was an opportunity for them to proclaim, like Paul in prison in Rome, that their hope was not in this life, but in the life to come. The testimony they were invited to give to their hope in the life to come would be, Paul observed, a word of condemnation to their opponents, a reminder of their opponents' lack of hope in anything more than this world has to offer. But, by the same token, it would be a word of encouragement to their Christian brother and sisters, and a word of witness to those in Philippi who were seeking something more solid, in terms of hope, than anything this world has to offer.

Suffering gives us the same opportunity. Every form of suffering threatens something that we value in this life: income, reputation, relationships, health, even life itself. Every form of suffering equally gives us the chance to witness to the world that we value something much, much more than whatever we stand to lose in this world. Suffering gives us opportunity, in other words, to witness to the hope that belongs to us as Christians. And that witness is powerful, because suffering invariably elicits attention from everyone around us. Suffering is mesmerizing. We've all had the experience of seeing the blue and red flashing lights ahead of us on the highway while the traffic backs up. We've all silently cursed the drivers ahead of us for slowing to a near stop in order to goggle the carnage. We've all reached the front of the line of traffic and slowed down ourselves to take in as much of an eyeful as we possibly can. Why? Because pain and suffering elicits attention. When we suffer, people notice. We invariably have a pulpit. The question is, what will we proclaim from that pulpit? Will we despair, and so witness that our hope lies in this world, and that we cannot bear the pain of losing something in this world? Or will we joyfully stick our tongues out at suffering, and so witness to a hope -- a hope of life forever with God -- that no form of suffering can take from us; a hope, indeed, that even death can only deliver, not destroy.

Luther's Lion-Hearted Historians

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Luther expressed his appreciation for history and historians on numerous occasions. History, he believed, provides fodder for both fear and praise since God is sovereign over the course of human events. History records and reminds us how God "upholds, rules, obstructs, prospers, punishes, and honors the world, and especially men, each according to his just desert, evil or good." History serves ethics by providing numerous examples of conduct to be emulated or avoided, and by providing a sense of national identity that is critical to the maintenance of public mores. Historians, therefore, "are the most useful people and the best teachers, so that one can never honor, praise, and thank them enough."

Luther also had thoughts on how history should be done (i.e. historiography). He shared those thoughts in 1538 in the preface to a German translation of Galeatius Capella's history of the reign of the Milanese Duke Francesco II Sforza. Given the attention Luther is receiving this year as an object of historical interest, it's intriguing to note how Luther himself believed historians should proceed with their task. Hearing Luther ruminate on the practice of history gives some insight into how he himself might have wished his own story told.

The historian, Luther opines, must be "a first-rate man who has a lion's heart, unafraid to write the truth." The reformer found few historians living up to this standard. "The greater number write in such a way that they readily pass over or put the best construction on the vices and deficiencies of their own times in the interest of their lords or friends and in turn glorify all too highly some trifling or vain virtue. On the other hand, they embellish or besmirch histories to the advantage of their father land and disadvantage of the foreigners, according to whether they love or hate someone."

Luther, it seems to me, understood well that history is a loaded enterprise because it traffics identities. The historian is never merely retelling things that have happened. Both in the selection of events depicted and in the manner of their depiction, the historian is constructing his subject's identity, and ultimately either vindicating or vilifying his subject. "Love or hate" for one's subject, as Luther puts it, heavily informs the identity ultimately constructed.

Luther's judgment that most historians lack lions' hearts and shy away from the truth may seem more pertinent to his day than ours. Early modern historians were generally more upfront than their present-day counterparts in acknowledging their "love or hate" for their subject(s), and in vindicating or vilifying accordingly. But I'm not personally convinced that all that much has changed between Luther's day and our own. Few historians in our day, it seems to me, really value truth above all else as they engage in the historical task. Few, for that matter, likely believe in "truth" as something distinct from their own or anyone else's interpretation of the facts at all, at least if pressed on the matter. The modern academy apes the Christian virtue of "truth" with its insistence on methodological objectivity, and promises/threatens those who pursue/reject that virtue the heaven/hell of tenure/termination. But the academy's watered down virtues and eschatological promises/threats aren't ultimately capable of producing Luther's longed-for lion-hearted historians. At best it will produce historians who are better at hiding their "love or hate," much as I surpass my own children's skill at masking the inherent self-centeredness that mutually characterizes them and me.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, the Gospel holds greater resources than the modern academy for producing truth-tellers (Eph. 4:24-25), and thus Luther's lion-hearted historians. Just as the Gospel frees us to be honest about ourselves before God and others, rejecting efforts to vindicate ourselves, it ultimately frees to be honest about others and eschew efforts to justify or incriminate them -- the fate of our historical subjects, after all, pivots on the presence of God's grace towards them, not on our moral judgments, however subtly communicated, regarding them. Christians of all people should have less invested in their own or anyone else's identity than they do the truth, and more incentive to bear true witness about their neighbor, whether dead or alive, than others might have.

Regardless, two question persist: Would Luther have wished the same moral standards, for which he advocated, of historical writing in general applied to the historians and histories of his own life and doings? And (perhaps more pressing in our own historical moment) who among the historians narrating Luther this year will prove lion-hearted, and who will prove that some agenda -- love, hate, or otherwise -- ranks higher in their priorities than the truth?

Effective personal evangelism: boldness

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In looking at some of the features of the effective personal evangelist, taking for granted (as it were) the genuine conversion and growing holiness of such a person, so far we have considered love and tenacity.

The third mark of the effective personal evangelist is boldness. We often struggle with a righteous straightforwardness, a loving clearness, a holy bluntness. The context and substance of the gospel message is that - apart from Christ - you are a rebellious sinner, under God's wrath on account of your wickedness, and if you will not repent of your sins and believe in Jesus Christ, there is a fearful hell waiting in which God's righteous judgments will be eternally poured out on your deserving head, and the only way in which you can be saved is to leave aside every other imagined way of being right with the one true and living God, and trusting in his Son whom he has sent, Jesus Christ the incarnate Lord, who died on the cross, through whom alone we can be reconciled to God and so obtain life everlasting. God has provided the one way of salvation for hell-deserving sinners. It demands a response: you must therefore repent and be converted. The effective personal evangelist speaks all the truth clearly, holding back nothing needful. Paul could say to the Ephesian elders of his entrance to Asia, ""I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20.20-21, 26-27). How do you tell people the good news? When someone says that they like to think of God in a certain way, do not really believe in hell, or that they have been a good person, we are too readily inclined to start soft-pedalling the context, substance and demands of the gospel when dealing with ignorant and rebellious sinners who need to hear the truth. We are too much inclined to cut or shave off the rough edges off our gospel, to hold back what is offensive in society, or even to avoid those elements which we think we can get away with not mentioning. Is there anyone who does not need a whole gospel? Again, love will carry us beyond mere sentiment (on our own behalf or someone else's) and make us bold to speak the whole truth. I am not saying that we invariably have the time and opportunity to explain everything on each occasion, but we will seek to speak all needful truth with all clarity to the people with whom we have to do. This is not just the courage that the street-preacher or door-knocker needs. Some parents are afraid to tell the gospel to their own children because they fear their reaction, are concerned that they might not like it and might turn from it. But what of the risk of not speaking? They cannot be saved unless they hear the gospel, and - if we speak with love - this will in itself break down some of the barriers. Again, I know of one brother who is welcomed back with literal open arms at some of the doors he has knocked on once or twice, his affectionate and bold regard for sinners having won a hearing if not yet a soul. The same brother is chased away from some doors for the same reasons, but he keeps going back. This is not, then, a harsh courage but a loving boldness.