Friday, 21 May 2010

Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace tells the story of William Wilberforce and his battle to abolish slavery within the British Empire. The title comes from the Hymn written by John Newton who was at one time the captain of a slave ship until his conversion to Christ. Born in Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire, Wilberforce studied at Cambridge with William Pitt, who would go on to become Prime Minister of England, graduating with a BA in 1781. He began to consider a political career while still at university, and during the winter of 1779–80 he and Pitt frequently watched House of Commons debates from the gallery. In 1784 he became the independent Member of Parliament for Yorkshire.

The following year he became an evangelical Christian, resulting in major changes to his outlook and a lifelong concern for reform. Until then he enjoyed a hedonistic lifestyle of cards, gambling and late night drinking. In 1787, he came into contact with Thomas Clarkson and a group of anti-slave-trade activists, including Granville Sharp, Hannah More and Charles Middleton. The first scene I have chosen portrays that meeting and their desire for Wilberforce to be the voice of the movement in Parliament.

1. Movie Scene Time: 24.39 – 27.39
The Call to Act

Wilberforce was a committed Christian. He felt a strong call to serve God but he also held a deep longing to see social reform within the UK. The scene shows Wilberforce confronted with the reality of how slaves were transported on the slave ships. The realization came that he could do both.

There is an unspoken belief held by many Christians that the peak of Christian achievement is to end up in full time ministry. Nothing could be further from the truth. The key is to find your calling and fulfill it with all the grace that God gives. Joseph saved a nation. His prophetic gift expressed itself within the political sphere of Egypt, not Israel. And he is not alone. Daniel would go on to serve three kings and two empires. Like Joseph his prophetic gift operated in the arena of State Politics. He is even quoted by Jesus when it comes to understanding the unfolding of end time events.

It is vital that we give value to the job and role where God has placed us. Even if we sense that this is not our final place in life, we do well to serve as though it were. Joseph gave himself to serving both Potiphar and the prison warden and was promoted to the chief position in both arenas. His gift kept breaking through in every circumstance of life until eventually, after many trials; he was ready to step into his destiny of saving nations, Egypt and Israel in particular.

Wilberforce understood this. He saw his role in politics as shaping a nation’s conscience in the same way God had shaped his. He did so through tireless presentations of bills, coherent arguments and collaboration with many supporters.

2. Movie Scene Time: 52.15 – 54.15
Galvanising Support

Vision is never as clear as when it can be seen, smelled, touched and heard. This next scene shows one of Wilberforce’s political allies who is on a ship entertaining many of his supporters. They think they are out for a pleasant tour of the Thames. Wilberforce uses the opportunity to let them experience the smell of death coming from the slave ship. Like Nehemiah who went to Jerusalem and surveyed the City at night to see for himself the awful destruction that had taken place, Wilberforce exposed people to the harsh reality of slavery.

He was not afraid to offend the genteel sensibilities in the cause of gaining support. Most were cut to the heart. And this is the power of vision, once it is seen, grasped and understood. It compels us and draws us to act according to conscience. However the fight that Wilberforce took on was massive. At that time 80% of the wealth of the Nation was connected in some form or another to slavery. It made economic sense to continue with the practice. What was the alternative?

A grass roots movement emerged that began to sell sugar from ‘free’ plantations, similar to ‘free trade’ coffee today. Many stopped using sugar altogether. Pressure was mounting. Year after year Wilberforce was defeated in Parliament through the financial scaremongering tactics of his opponents. Further the America’s had broken away at this time and the French Revolution was under way. The slogan of Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood did nothing to endear the British to abolish slavery. Such talk became equal to sedition, (open revolt against government).

This was a million miles from Wilberforce’s thinking and practice. On top of this the British then went to war with Napoleon. Slavery was pushed to the back burner. The next scene shows how Wilberforce and his friends got around this problem.

3. Movie Scene Time: 1.30.25 – 1.33.20
Petitioning the Prime Minister

This is probably one of my favourite scenes in the movie. Having failed for years to have an antislavery bill passed in Parliament Wilberforce, on the advice of a clever lawyer put’s forward a bill allowing privateers to board any ship flying the American flag. Privateers were like licensed pirates. The British were at war with the French and as the America’s had recently broken away from the British Empire the French were often flying the American flag which gave them protection from being attacked. America was seen as neutral in the war.

Wilberforce wanted to present a bill that on the face of it helped the war effort but stopping the French from getting away with this loophole that prevented them from being attacked. It looked an innocent bill. However many slave traders also flew the American flag to avoid being attacked by the French. They were playing the same game. Under maritime law a ship flying the American flag could not claim to be French and by the same token could not claim to be British. Thus privateers could not only attack French vessels, they could attack British ones too if they flew the American flag.

This left the slave traders vulnerable to attack and in effect killed their transport system. It was a stroke of genius. When Jesus sent out His disciples He warned them of the dangers to come and gave them some advice: “Behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” Matt 10.16 Imagine that. They are about to go out and Jesus says in effect, “You are the sheep and I’m sending you into the middle of a pack of wolves”. The only thing that wolves and sheep have in common is lunch. They are the ones on the menu. Wolves eat sheep! The temptation in such a scenario is to either behave like a wolf. Fight fire with fire; or to hide and live in fear. Neither reaction is a Kingdom response. Jesus has given us real authority and we need to use it.

The second part of the verse perfectly illustrates what Wilberforce did. He was as wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove. Doves are not predators like Eagles or Hawks. They are not aggressive. A dove was the symbol in scripture for the Holy Spirit at the Baptism of Jesus. In nature we are to be like them; gentle with people, even with those who oppose us, 2Tim 2.24-26. But serpents! They’re different. In scripture the tempter in the Garden of Eden is portrayed as a serpent. This creature was more subtle and cunning than any other in the garden.

Their nature is deadly, but there is something about them Jesus wants us to emulate – their wisdom. Sometimes we cannot achieve victory by dealing with a problem head on. Applying more force and pressure doesn’t always work. People can become entrenched and hardened in their opinions. Jesus used wisdom all the time. People tried to catch Him out but He always had a clever answer. Often He exposed the hypocrisy and selfish motives behind the questions in the process.

Think of when the Pharisees asked Jesus where He got His authority from to do the things He did. He answered a question with a question, Matt 21.23-27. “I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?” If they were truthful and acknowledged it came from God then why didn’t they submit to it? If they lied and said it was from men they would lose credit with all the people, for everyone acknowledged John as a Prophet sent from God. Either way it was a lose - lose outcome for them.

They refused to answer Jesus saying “We do not know”. Notice Jesus response, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things”. It’s genius. It’s witty. It’s perceptive. Wisdom is like this. And Jesus says that’s how we need to be. It seems to me we’ve been good at focusing on being harmless as doves but we need to grow much more in wisdom. Wilberforce did this and he got what he wanted!

4. Movie Scene Time: 1.42.50 – 1.45.00
Victory and Honour at Last

This last scene shows the final victory in Parliament where slavery is abolished. It’s a powerful scene. Not just because of the political victory, but because finally even his opponents are compelled to stand and honour the courage and determination of Wilberforce. It points forward to a day when we will all stand before the judgement seat of Christ to give an answer for the things we have done “in the body.....whether good or bad”, 2Cor 5.10.

Our life is not simply a collection of days and events. It is that, but it’s more. It is an opportunity to make a difference in a world that God loves and gave His Son to redeem. We have the chance to live out that victory in every area of life where defeat and hopelessness reigns. Wilberforce didn’t just do politics. His faith gave him the stamina and courage to take on a big battle. Like David who fought Goliath in the Old Testament, he was outraged that God’s love for humanity for being mocked through the slave trade. He took it on and won. He changed history. He changed the world.

Now here’s the point. When he was in it, he didn’t feel special. He didn’t feel courageous. He had no guarantee of the outcome. He had no real understanding of the price he would pay. But today we stand back and applaud him. You too can make a difference. Learn a lesson from Wilberforce. Give yourself to a battle worth giving your life for. Don’t aim for a comfortable life, aim for a meaningful one, a purposeful one. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll receive Heaven’s applause for what you did in His Name? Enjoy watching the movie some time.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010


The Movie Luther has a host of stars with the lead role taken by Joseph Feinnes and a strong supporting cast including Bruno Ganz, Jonathan Firth (brother to Colin), Alfred Molina and Peter Ustinov in the last role before his death. It was released in 2003. It tells the story of the famous Augustinian Monk who was catalytic in initiating what has become know historically as the Protestant Reformation. Luther recovered the truth that salvation is not achieved through good works, but is a free gift of God, received only by grace through faith in Jesus as the redeemer from sin.

Luther was born in 1483. His father leased copper mines and worked hard to provide Luther with a good education, wanting him to become a lawyer. He graduated from the University of Erfurt with a Masters degree in 1501. He then went on to study law but dropped out the same year, sold his books, and entered a closed Augustinian friary in Erfurt on 17 July 1505. His father was furious over this decision and saw it as a waste of Luther's education and a snub against him personally.

Luther dedicated himself to monastic life, giving himself to fasting, long hours in prayer, pilgrimage, and frequent confession. He would later remark, “If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would indeed have been among them.” He described this period of his life as one of deep spiritual despair. We pick up the movie with a scene of Luther berating himself and the devil for his deep sense of sinfulness. Notice what his perception of God is at this time, before he has read the New Testament and discovered the teaching of justification by faith.

Movie Clip Time 5.41-7.55
Condemnation – Luther Tormented

Luther’s greatest problem at this time lay in three areas. The first was his ignorance of scripture. He had never read the New Testament until this point. All he knew of faith was passed on to him through the traditions and practice of the Catholic Church and his monastery in particular. He did not yet understand the liberating truths that would so radically change his life and establish God’s word as the final authority in all matters of faith. This ignorance of scripture gave him a distorted view of God. He saw Him as vengeful, angry and condemning. As the movie scene shows, he longed for a God of mercy who loved him and he could love.

Ignorance of scripture lies at the heart of many problems in the church even today. Men like Luther gave their lives so that ordinary people could read the Bible in their own language. We have a plethora of translations today but how many believers take time to read the scriptures devotionally or even study them? Many show more dedication to their favourite sport than they do to God’s unchanging word. If we are to remain distinctive as ‘the people of God’ then we need to know our rights and responsibilities laid out in scripture. Joshua was commanded, “This Book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night that you may observe to do all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous and then you will have good success”, Josh 1.8. Notice three things in this verse;

1. It had to be in his mouth – it had to be a spoken word. For that is how God’s creative power is released, Gen 1. God said, God said, God said; over and over again. Under pressure we often speak what we really believe. Through meditation God’s word is to find such a home in our hearts that it changes our way of thinking and consequently our way of living. Our life follows our confession.

2. The focus here was on doing what the word commands not just knowing the word. Jesus said; “If you know these things, Happy are you if you do them”, John 13.17. Action turns a desire into a reality.

3. Success is guaranteed to those who choose to live this way. Failure in life often comes down to ignorance of God’s truth or a lack of obedience to the truth we already know. David didn’t need to be told that adultery was wrong. The problem did not lay in his understanding, but in his obedience. He knew better!

The second area lay in trying to deal with his feelings of guilt. He constantly felt bad about himself. Part of this was the real guilt he carried because he was not born again. There is such a thing as conviction that comes from God. As the finger of God this is always specific and points to the sin we often hide from others. The Holy Spirit is sent to convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgement, John 16.8. He witnesses to the truth that we speak when we share the gospel. It is part of God’s kindness in leading a person to repentance, Rom 2.4; 2Tim 2.24-26. They in turn feel an inward drawing to God to seek for forgiveness for the sin they are aware of.

However, the third part was down to his oversensitive conscience. There is a great line in the movie where his mentor says, “In the last two years I’ve heard your confession I haven’t heard anything remotely interesting”. Despite all his confessing he could not find real lasting forgiveness. Instead he went from confessional to confessional. Forgiveness for him at that time lasted as long as his behaviour met his own rigorous standards. When he fell short, he immediately felt condemned. The word, condemn means separation or judgement. This is exactly what Luther felt; separated from God and under His judgement. His poor understanding of scriptural truth made him a victim of superstition and error.

In 1508 his wise mentor took the decision to send Luther to Wittenberg where he could study the scriptures for himself. It proved to be a history making decision; one that would literally change the face of Europe.

Movie Clip Time 21.05-22.21
Conversion – Luther Preaching

While at Wittenberg, Luther studied the New Testament. For the first time he could evaluate his received theology and practice in the light of his personal study of scripture. Within four years He gained his Doctorate and in 1512 became professor of the university. During this time he began to understand the gospel and what justification by faith really meant. He saw that salvation could not be earned. It was a gift, rooted in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus.

One of his favourite texts was the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. This parable gave him a totally different picture of what God the Father was like. He also understood Paul’s technical use of a word like justification. It was a legal term that described the verdict of a trial where someone was acquitted. This person was said to be Justified or Righteous, (just and righteous come from the same root word in the Greek language). This does not mean that they are morally perfect, only that God sees them as being ‘in the right’. This righteousness is given to us because of the merits of Jesus who died in our place, 2Cor 5.21 “He who knew no sin became sin that we might become the righteousness of God in Him”.

Luther loved Paul’s argument in Roman’s, “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness”, Rom 4.3. Abraham believed God’s word. He had faith in what God said. His faith in and of itself earned him nothing, but God credited him with something. ‘Counted’ or ‘credited’ is an accounting term. Something was added to Abraham’s account – Righteousness. He didn’t earn it or work for it, but received it as a gift. He was justified by faith. And that is how we all get into the Kingdom. Listen to Paul explaining it:

“But the free gift (Justification secured by Jesus death on the cross) is not like the offense (Adam’s sin that resulted in the fall of humanity). For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one man Jesus Christ abounded to many. And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgement which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification”, Rom 5.15-16. (My understanding in brackets).

Let me unpack that a little. Paul is contrasting Adam and Jesus. Adam sinned and it plunged humanity into sin and death – condemnation. Jesus died on the cross and forgiveness could now be extended to all those who put faith in Him leading to justification. To use shorthand, ‘in Adam’ we are all condemned; ‘in Christ’ we are all justified. By natural birth we are all in Adam, by a new birth we can be in Christ.

Luther recognised that justification doesn’t depend on religious practice or observance, continual confession and absolution, paying indulgences, making pilgrimages or hallowing sacred relics. It depended only on faith in Christ; trusting in the person and work of Jesus.

Movie Clip Time 38.06-40.12
Correction – Luther begins his challenge

Not only did this truth radically change his own understanding, it allowed him to see how far the church had moved away from the simple truth of the Gospel. In particular he ragged against people like Johann Tetzel who sold indulgences that promised relief from time in purgatory. In 1517 Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral challenging this and other Catholic practices. His intention was to reform the church from within. However, a new invention at that time was about to change everything; the printing press. Luther’s ideas were published and within two weeks, copies of the theses had spread throughout Germany. Within two months they had spread throughout Europe. The whole issue had suddenly become very public.

Luther’s knowledge, including that of church history, Papal edicts, Catholic theology and New Testament theology, uniquely placed him to be able to challenge, with some authority, the received dogma of his day. This is in fact the bedrock of all Protestant theology today. We continually go back to see what scripture has to say. Scripture itself declares that this is one of its purposes; “All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work”, 2Tim 3.16.

Luther’s challenge was embarrassing to the church but given that the Bible was only available in Latin and most of the people did not have an education that included the classics the dispute remained largely a scholastic one. What is also important to understand is that Luther was a professor of theology and so he studied, taught and wrote extensively from a pastoral heart. He wanted people to know the truth. And his writings were incredibly popular. He simply could not be ignored. So the church demanded Luther to recant and he was summoned to appear at the Diet of Worms in 1521 having been ex-communicated the year before.

Movie Clip Time 1.12.15 – 1.16.37
Confrontation – Luther before the Diet of Worms

In this final clip Luther stands before the church council and the Emperor Charles V. The pressure to recant was enormous. For him to defy the authority of Rome, both civil and ecclesiastical, meant he would face almost certain death. (Remember that at this time the church and State were linked). At his first appearing he felt the intimidation and pressure of the council and so asked for more time to consider his answer.

His final answer to the court came the following day. It is compelling. He divided his works into three categories. The first group contained writings that even his opponents had commended. He refused to recant of accepted Christian truth. It was unthinkable! The second category was directed at the errors of the popes and church councils past and present. The third category were writings directed as specific individuals. Here Luther admitted that at times he had been too harsh and acknowledged his lack of grace. Given the nature of his conflict with Rome it showed remarkable humility.

There is a lesson for us here too. Sometimes we can be so aware of the glaring errors in others that we can develop a superior attitude. Pride can creep in. We develop an attitude not dissimilar to the Pharisees in Jesus day. In doing so, we lose ground. Luther acknowledged his error. He had written publicly and he repented publicly. We could argue that in comparison to the errors he was dealing with this was small. True, at one level. But like David in 1Sam 24.5 who cut the hem of Saul’s garment, he responded to conviction. And that is the point. Luther dealt with any wrongdoing on his part and this gave him the moral and spiritual authority to deal with error in others.

Sadly Luther’s answer was not what the council wanted to hear. They demanded one answer. Recant or not? This is where Luther becomes bold: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen”.

And the rest as they say is history! Luther stands as an example of what it means to stand for the truth. He knew that the destinies and freedom of millions where at stake. I love his statement, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God”. What arrests you? What has captured your heart? What would you give all for? His resolute stand was the mark of a true shepherd.

From here on Luther became an outlaw. He went into hiding and over the next three years translated the New Testament into German. Eventually the reformation spread to the point that he could live freely in Germany. He married Katherina Von Bora, an ex-nun, and set a new precedent for clergy being married. They went on to have six children. At the same time Luther wrote new forms of liturgy more suited for the simple people he cared for and introduced congregational singing in the church service. He was by all counts an outstanding individual. Nearly five hundred years later we still speak of him. What a legacy. What a life. What an impact.