In 1517, exactly five hundred years ago the Protestant Reformation broke out in earnest and radically changed the shape of the Christian church in Europe. For some considerable time up to that point there had been rumblings of protest and numerous attempts at reforming the corruption in the Mediaeval church, but with Martin Luther the rumblings broke into a full scale fracture between the Roman Church and “Protestants”. He gave the Reformation a huge initial impetus and he gave it its watchwords, “Faith only” and “Scripture Only”. Those watchwords, wherever they were observed, were to release enormous blessing in the Christian church right to the present day.

One particular event has always stood out as marking the beginning of this Reformation; the nailing of Luther’s 95 theses for debate on the church door of the Castle Church in the small town of Wittenberg on Oct. 31st, The Feast of All Saints, 1517. (Hence this blog at this time) Many of these theses were fairly innocuous, but some were not. In particular Luther bitterly attacked the practice of selling Indulgences by which people were pressed into paying money to the Pope so that they could be released from the torments of Purgatory. Luther denied outright that the Pope had any power over the “treasury of merit” on which such indulgences were based. They were actually spiritually dangerous and contrary to the gospel. Even if he did have such power the Pope should give them away freely to set people free. These theses were not just academic in tone; they were written in anger at the injustice and venality of such a money racket, and the language was blunt and direct. This attack on the Pope was dangerous, but the affair might have died out but for the fact that, unknown to Luther, the theses were immediately and widely published and were soon the talk of Germany. The Pope had to make some response and in the ensuing debates and trials over the following years with the Pope’s agents Luther not only showed great acumen and ability but found himself  taking more radical positions against the Pope’s authority as he worked out the implications of what he found in scripture. His fearless and rock-like stance in contesting for the truth ensured that his protests could not be quashed. He stood by his words, “Here I stand”! He found widespread support for his position and soon the stream he unleashed became a flood.

The really fascinating aspect in this history lies in what had been happening in Luther’s heart and in his spiritual experience in the three or four years prior to 1517. It provides a remarkable testimony of the changing and motivating power of the truth of God’s word. Luther as a boy had a deep concern for religion and sought the favour of God. The Mediaeval church, however, presented a very fearsome side of God; he was a God who was ready to pick up on every fault and was devoid of any Fatherly love. This is what Luther lived with throughout his young years. He did everything the church told him to do to keep away the wrath of God and to keep his conscience clean, but unfortunately all his penances, all his confessions, all abstinences simply failed to bring him any sense of peace or of God’s acceptance. Getting caught in the midst of a thunderstorm one day he felt he was being pursued by the wrath of God and resolved to become a monk. That, he felt would bring him into favour with God and bring him peace, since he would give up everything for God and spend his whole time in godly exercises. He became an Augustinian novice in 1505 in Erfurt. A short period of relative peace, however, was soon superseded by a resurgence of his problem which was made worse by all his fasting, deprivations and constant daily services. Whatever way he tried to remove the “terror” of the righteousness of God and Christ he found no relief. This went on for some eight long years in the cloister and left him in a morose, depressed state and on the verge of a nervous collapse. Eventually he was placed in the hands of an astute and understanding senior monk, Staupitz. Staupitz, recognising Luther’s very obvious intellectual talents and prodigious energy, hit on a radical possibility as a solution to his problems; he offered Luther a post in the university at Wittenberg where he would teach bible subjects. This he hoped would get him out of his intense inward look.

Luther had not spent much time in his bible at Erfurt, but in Wittenberg he was set to lecture first on the Psalms and then on Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans. He read them with his usual diligence. This was a turning point, way beyond anything Staupitz could have imagined; God began to reveal himself directly to Luther from the scriptures. Reading through Ps.22 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me ….” Luther was brought face to face with the sufferings of Christ in an entirely fresh way. He began to ask himself why Jesus, who terrified him so much, had to suffer so much himself. The Cross began to demand his attention and the sacrifice of Jesus began to take on a new light. When he approached Galatians and particularly when he studied Romans he saw with acid clarity the simple but all important truth that salvation and forgiveness were not obtained by works of the Law or the legalistic requirements of his own religiosity as a monk, but simply as a free gift from God to be accepted by faith. God was no longer a “Terror” but a God of love who had provided forgiveness of sin through the atoning sacrifice of his Son. This truth broke into his life as a great light and totally changed his spiritual understanding. Instead of fear there was now praise and thanksgiving. He was free in his spirit, he understood precisely what the death of Christ had achieved and he recognised clearly that the only “good works” that came from him were those which came through the Holy Spirit who had shed the love of God in his heart. This was not merely a change of doctrine! It was a profound revelation of God concerning His saving grace. It released a burning fire in Luther’s heart, and he held it with a passion and clarity of one who had been tormented in darkness for many years and was now released. This was the real root of the Reformation – a heart on fire with a totally life-changing biblical truth which had to be spoken out to a world in which it had been lost.

It was this that gave the bite, the righteous anger, the vigour to the 95 theses and which continued to inform the struggles which were to follow. Two things were now clear: salvation was by faith alone, and the only true guide to genuine Christian faith lay in the scriptures. Luther had regained common ground with Paul the Apostle and he was not going to let go. It was these two basic facts and their implications that were to lead to lead Luther to battle with the Roman church and its controlling Papal institutions which had completely obscured them. These two essentials were the bedrock of the Reformed churches that were to emerge and secured a profound spiritual advance in Christendom.

Interestingly enough, it was not a revelationary experience that was peculiar to Luther or his friends. It was something that happened to large numbers of serious and sincere Christians across Europe, and not least in Britain where many leading churchmen had exactly the same experience as, within the same 16th century, they read the new scholarly renderings of the Greek texts of the New Testament and were able to see clearly for themselves the truths that had been obscured for many generations.

The word of God brings light, and that light is the Grace of God in Jesus Christ for our forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit for godly living.

Bob Dunnett


Surveying the nations of his day David gave voice to what he saw with the words, ““Do you rulers indeed speak justice? Do you judge uprightly among men? No, in your heart you devise injustice and your hands meet out violence on the earth” Ps 58: 1-2.  David’s own heart was set on doing what was right, constantly giving thanks to His God whom he knew to be righteous, faithful and just.  He hated wickedness, as his psalms constantly show. He was a man of deep integrity, a “man after God’s own heart”.  It was this integrity that makes clear that his stricture of other rulers of his day was not a foolish generalisation but was an accurate, and to him a distressing assessment.

If he had looked around the world in our own generation I have not the slightest doubt that he would have come to precisely the same general conclusion:  rulers who “devise injustice” and “meet out violence” are to be seen everywhere across the world.  There has been a disturbing collapse of many so-called “democratic” states into autocratic and despotic rule over the last two decades or so.  This has been particularly the case in Africa among the old colonial states where there has been widespread violence; and recent developments in South Africa are most disturbing. But it has also been the case in South Asia and South America.  “Strong men” everywhere, have exploited (or devised) revolutionary situations and have seized personal and arbitrary control through “necessary safety” measures, locking out any form of opposition, legitimate or otherwise.  Two of the most influential nations of the world, Russia and China, are despotic in essence, despite a “democratic dress”; here, as elsewhere, the strength and security of the “strong men” are always preferred to justice. After a brief flurry the Arab Spring has quickly reverted to despotic rule and its usual oppressive measures. The Middle East indeed has seen appalling violence and utterly unscrupulous actions from “rulers”. The gains for all these rulers are always great wealth (rarely, if ever, acquired justly) and power.

If we look at the “democratic” nations the picture is still very much as David painted it. Corruption is running at an increasingly high level, intrigue is universal and vicious, libel and misrepresentation is increasingly blatant, not least in the U.S. which considers itself the heart of the free world! Europe, caught up at the present in the throes of a vicious and unforgiving divorce with the UK  is no better, and its history in the last century has been one in which it launched two devastating world wars!. This, of course, is not to belittle the fact that there are many individuals who have a heart like David’s and seek justice and righteousness but the overall pattern is clear. The democratic instruments of government which men have produced are in themselves to be much admired and have brought high levels of justice and freedom. But they all suffer from one inescapable fault; the violence, ambition and greed of fallen human nature. They all tend to flounder on those flaws.

None of this should really surprise us. Satan offered Jesus all the wealth and rule of the kingdoms of the world, and so indicated that he had a level of control over the world’s rulers. His kingdom is one of oppression, violence and deceit and he finds faulty humanity a convenient partner for his rule over human kingdoms. He did not mention, however, God’s supreme Kingship over all things and Jesus was not interested in the vain glory of a ruler-ship which would always involve fear and violence. Jesus in any case already had a very similar promise from his Father, a promise enshrined prophetically in the Psalms; “Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.” (Ps 2:8). This was a promise, not of receiving the rule of corrupt and sinful nations, but of receiving nations whom he would both judge and also redeem from sin. And it was an utterly certain promise.

We have seen two thousand years of human history since Jesus died, rose and ascended. In our generation it is well documented. The lessons of history are not always easy to read and in any case are largely ignored, but in the case of humanity in general history’s verdict is totally unmistakeable. All the evidence points to the fact that it is the deep flaws in human nature of greed, pride, arrogance, violence and envy that are fundamentally responsible for the story of self-destruction which makes up human history over the ages. These flaws are characteristic of all human hearts, but they seem particularly manifest among kings and those in positions of power. As we have been very perceptively told by a foremost British historian, “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. His comment has now become a well-known axiom, but little heeded! It means that holding on to power at the point when it threatens to be lost is the point at which violence and injustice is most certain to appear. (We have so many examples in the modern world of this fact). It means that being able to use power without any accountability (despotic power) is always a temptation too far. It means that to gain power is actually to arrive at a moral slippery slope where very few indeed keep their balance!

This is a lesson from history which very few thinkers are prepared to engage with. And yet it is the central problem of our world and the whole human race. “We’re not that bad!” would be a common retort – this denies the depth of the problem. “Evolution will sort it out at some aeon of time” – this very conveniently parks the problem. “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it; and we are trying to teach “values””. The problem has never been, however, about “knowing values” but about living them! It’s moral dynamic we need, not “education”.

Thankfully it is precisely this problem that the biblical narrative engages with. That is why the biblical narrative can never be accused of irrelevance. From Genesis to Revelation the focus is on the human “fall” from grace. The first thing that it seeks to establish is that it exists and is not to be denied. No excuses are offered. Human nature is pictured in the raw, just as it is. The second thing it establishes is that the solution of the problem is beyond humanity’s own competence. In particular a code of moral behaviour is shown to be not a solution to humanity’s failure, but is shown to be something that makes human inability to shake off its flaws all the more evident. So the Ten Commandments, though impeccable as a code given by God, could not provide the moral dynamic humanity needed to live uprightly and without violence. That is the lesson of the Old Testament.

What humanity really needs, and this is the radical solution, is a thorough transformation from within; the old propensities in human nature toward evil need to be replaced by equally strong propensities to do what is good, just and peaceful. New motivations of love are what are required. Nothing less than a “new creation” will suffice. This is the point grasped by the New Testament gospel, and re-iterated throughout its books.  To use its most graphic expression humanity needs to be “born anew”. It needs a new “injection” which nullifies the old nature and release a new nature. And this is precisely what the gospel offers. It offers a new nature from the Creator God through the power of His own Spirit.  No source other than God would be possible or sufficient for such a change. Self-change by meditation and such like exercises simply would not avail. There is a majestic simplicity about this solution to humanity’s inner need, as well as a profound logic. And it is a measure of God’s concern for his creation that He is ready to do this. The way has been opened by the sacrifice of Jesus, and by his consequent release of the Holy Spirit into those who seek such a change. Innumerable people across the world have experienced something of such an inner change in following Jesus.

The “radical solution” is not simply a matter for the present world, however. The purpose of God is to complete his work by taking us through death into a new resurrection experience with a new body, equally radically changed. This will be part and parcel of a process in which this world will be brought to its end and a new world created. We shall be new creations in new bodies with a new divine likeness in holiness, and in a new world which knows no death but of which eternal life is the key feature.

Too good to be true? Or too wonderful to be missed!


Bob Dunnett

Chinese (non) Entertainment


The Economist magazine recently reported that “according to an order that took effect on Jan. 1st this year, China’s 34 satellite television stations must limit ‘excessive and vulgar content’”. The Economist noted that “compared with offerings in other countries, China’s television fare is already quite tame. Viewers looking for sex, nudity, gore or crude language will search in vain”. That sounds wonderfully unbelievable! But things are evidently getting tighter still: since Jan. 1st in the 7.30 p.m. – 10 p.m. Chinese “Gold Time” viewing slot there must now be two 30 min. news broadcasts and only 90 min of lighter shows. A much loved singing contest “Super Girl” has been axed. Chinese tastes are clearly being brought to heel!

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The Plight of Man

The title of this post, “The Plight of Man” seems rather old fashioned, but it conveys the sense of a desperate need in humanity, a need which has not gone away with the years. I have recently felt the weight of that need more and more, and I cannot find a better phrase.

This phrase has come afresh to me as a result of a more intensive look at the nations of the world and especially perhaps at looking at India. Operation World, the Prayer Guide to Every Nation, says quite bluntly, “India has more human need than any other nation”. It goes on to note that poverty affects hundreds of millions, a poverty that often means utter destitution; forty per cent in India live below the poverty line. Poverty abounds not only in the vast cities but throughout the whole of rural India. This is the truth behind a nation which now boasts a middle class of 350 million and the fourth largest number of billionaires. These merely stand astride a mountain of people in poverty and do not hide the plight of most.

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The Power and Hope of the Gospel

I mentioned a fortnight ago that my local church is engaged in a month of prayer over January. My own involvement has been in leading prayer for the world. The research and reading behind that world prayer (much of it from “Operation World”) has given me a fresh sense of spiritual hope as we walk into a very uncertain year ahead. Two of the areas of the world we have majored on in prayer have been China and Africa (China having the larger population!). When we look back over the last century we find that, from the point of view of the gospel and the growth of the church, both these areas show something quite staggering, something that releases a deep joy.

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