The Local Church

June 2nd Italians celebrate La Festa della Repubblica, which celebrates the founding of the Republic in Italy (1946). Like any good holiday it means a day off. Our church took advantage of this Monday off and had a two day “weekend” (Sunday & Monday) at a local Augritorismo, a beautiful piece of land with a villa just outside the city (only 20 minutes from our house).

Augritorismo

Sunday mornings in Italy are just like they are in the States. There are several people you want to talk to, and often feel a bit rushed in conversations, trying to greet other passersby. Weekends like this are a great chance to relax a bit as a group and have some extended discussions. These opportunities to catch up came between sessions of study, discussion and prayer. The focus fell on the church’s desire to see other local churches raised up in the city and the need to pray and evangelize in that light.

The saints at Berea are a close knit group of folks. They love to be together, are hungry to hear the Word and are glad to talk of the things of Christ. We were grateful to be a part of the weekend, helping where we could. We are learning once again that it takes time to really become a part of a local body, and weekends like this are certainly a step in the right direction.

The girls on the way home. They spent the two days playing with their friends outside in the dirt (check out Noelle's hands).

The girls on the way home. They spent the two days playing with their friends outside in the dirt (check out Noelle’s hands).

These two days left me reflecting on the importance of the local church, specifically its importance in our lives as new missionaries to Italy. The following reflections are specific to the opportunities we have in Italy, and therefore wouldn’t necessarily apply to every context in exactly the same way. Read these thoughts as reasons we are grateful for Berea, and some thoughts on why our time with Berea is so important in this season of preparation…

  • Let’s start with the super practical. We are in Italy on religious visas. To obtain this type of visa you have to be invited to be here by a preexisting ministry. Normally this preexisting “ministry” is the Catholic Church. There are very few protestant churches that are recognized by the government. In the Lord’s perfect providence, Berea happens to be one of these churches. The elders kindly provided me with a letter, which played a large role in helping me obtain my visa.
  • Our desire to plant a church in the future doesn’t exempt us from the need to continue to learn how to observe all that Jesus commanded now (Mt. 28:20). During this season of preparation, our conviction about the centrality of the local church expresses itself in commitment to a real local assembly with qualified leaders who preach the Word of God and administer the ordinances (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper). The church is how God shows his “manifold wisdom” in the heavens (Eph. 3:10).
  • We need the church. Our use of subjunctive verbs in the Italian language isn’t the only thing that needs work. We need other believers around us encouraging us, and pointing us to Christ. Our hearts long for the ministry of faithful leaders that Christ has given to His church (Eph. 4:11), Christ intended it to be that way. The faithfulness with which we practice the “one anothers” needs to continue to grow. Though each new season of the Christian life carries with it new challenges, our need for the Word of God and the people of God remains constant.
  • Some places have no church. Italy isn’t one of them. Should Christ use us as some of His Servants to build His church in Italy, it will be a continuation of the work He is already doing (cf. 1 Cor. 3:5; Matt. 16:18). We are benefited and better equipped by getting an up close and personal look at what Christ has been doing here. We aren’t the only ones who have the Holy Spirit on Italian soil, therefore we want to learn from those who have the same Spirit and have been here far longer. We honor Christ by honoring those who have come before us, and being a part of a church gives us opportunity to do that. Surely this is an extension of what Paul says in 1 Thess. 5:12-13: “But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another.”
  • I turned 30 this year. As old as that sounds :), I’m still young with a ton to learn. Attending Berea gives me the opportunity to grow as a shepherd, learning from men who have been doing it much long than I have.

The view from our window…

Last night, while our team was meeting for Bible study, we saw this outside our window. The quality isn’t great, but the two short clips should give you an idea of what we saw.

 

***Update: I posted these clips with little explanation because I wasn’t exactly sure who the group was and what feast day was being celebrated. However, a bit more explanation surely would have been helpful. It is a statue of Mary, and there is a catholic priest leading the charge.

Predica la Parola

Italian Theological Academy

Our first conference in Italy is in the books. We had the privilege of attending Predica la Parola (Preach the Word) this past week. The conference was at a hotel with a really fancy sounding name (Grand Hotel Duca D’este ) in a small town outside of Rome called Tivoli. The Italian Theological Academy did a great job putting the whole thing together. For us, it was 4 days of speaking a ton of Italian, refreshing our hearts in truths about our Savior, spending some time with our team, and getting to know other Italian believers (with a healthy portion of eating sprinkled in).

The conference lineup included Rick Holland and Carey Hardy from the United States and Jonny Gravino and Lucio Stanisci, Italians who serve as missionaries here. Rick’s book Uneclipsing the Son was recently translated into Italian (Riscoprire il Figlio), and every attendee got one as a gift! In light of the release, the conference took as its theme the person of Christ. Ever since Johanna and I read Bruce Ware’s The Man Christ Jesus, our hearts have been helped by the connection between Christ’s dependence on the Spirit in His earthly ministry and our dependence on the Spirit in sanctification. It was refreshing to revisit those themes, as well as several others.

It was great to catch up a bit with Lucio and Massimo, who serve in Perugia, as well as Jonny and his team from ITA (Sicily). In many ways we have a shared heritage, so I’m looking forward to continuing to cultivate those relationships (They were trained at The Expositor’s Seminary’s big brother). We took a few Italian breaks and spent some time with Rick (who I’d already known), and Carey and Pam Hardy (who we just met). Time spent around ministry veterans like Rick and Carey is never wasted.

Predica La Parola

A picture from the Q & A. The headphones are for the simultaneous translation. Johanna and I made a commitment to ‘go headphones’ for every session in English so that we could listen in Italian.

As with any good conference, there were books for sale. There isn’t an abundance of Christian literature published in Italy, and there are even fewer good Christian books. That being the case, I’ve been overjoyed to find some wonderful resources have made their way into Italian. You can find many of MacArthur’s commentaries on the New Testament and Puritan works by Edwards and Owen. I nabbed a copy of A. W. Pink’s Trarre Profitto dalla Parola (Profiting from the Word), which I’m looking forward to rereading in Italian. I made friends with the guys who run the book table. I loved hearing as they described the way that God used books by Spurgeon and the Puritans to pull them out of Pentecostalism and bring them to a solid understanding of Biblical theology.

Let me wrap up with a few words about the language, as learning the language remains the focus of our efforts. We drove away from the conference grateful to God for many small steps in the language. The extended stretches in Italian definitely helped us get in a good rhythm. Something really ‘clicked’ for Johanna and her comprehension level was better than it ever has been before. Jonny Gravino was kind enough to give me the opportunity to share with the conference a bit about what brought us to Italy and our future ministry. I was nervous, but Johanna might have been more so! Although there were definitely some errors made, everyone said they understood what I was trying to say, and so I was encouraged to have my first public speaking “event” (all 4 minutes of it) out of the way.

 

Saints

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Yesterday almost a million ‘pilgrims’ gathered in and around Saint Peter’s Square to celebrate the Catholic church’s two newest saints. The crowd included world leaders (100 foreign delegates according to BBC), 850 bishops and cardinals, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Floribeth Mora, who claims she was cured from an inoperable brain condition, a purported miracle attributed to Pope John Paul II. Those unable to fit in the square watched on big screens, some taking in the two hour service in 3D. In addition to two huge portraits of John Paul II and John XXIII displayed on the front of Saint Peters, relics of each Pope were present: a container of John Paul’s blood and a piece of John’s skin.

Pope Francis uttered the following in Latin to declare the two men saints at the climax of the ceremony:

For the honor of the blessed trinity, the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the increase of the Christian life, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul and our own. After due deliberation and frequent prayer for divine assistance, and having sought the counsel of many of our brother bishops, we declare and define blessed John XXII and John Paul II be saints and we enroll them among the saints decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. [1]

David Willey of BBC news explains that these two men being canonized together was no accident: “There was a political dimension to this. Many Catholics regret their Church’s subsequent failure fully to implement the radical reforms promised by the Second Vatican Council half a century ago. By canonising both the Pope who set off the reform movement [John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council] and the Pope who applied the brakes [John Paul II], declaring for example that hot-button issues such as the celibacy rule and the ordination of women as priests were not up for discussion, Pope Francis has skilfully deflected any possible criticism that he could be taking sides.”[2]

Although a part of me wanted to brave the crowds to see the spectacle, I didn’t. While these two men were being declared saints, I was listening to Carey Hardy preach a sermon on the position of every believer from Hebrews 3:1: “Holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession.” My heart was helped as we examined what it means to be declared holy (from the word for saint) because of the once for all sacrifice of Christ.

 

[1] Here is the Latin: “Ad exaltationem fidei catholicæ et vitæ christianæ incrementum, auctoritate Domini nostri Iesu Christi, beatorum Apostolorum Petri et Pauli ac Nostra, matura deliberatione præhabita et divina ope sæpius implorata, ac de plurimorum Fratrum Nostrorum consilio, Beatos Ioannem XXIII et Ioannem Paulum II Sanctos esse decernimus et definimus, ac Sanctorum Catalogo adscribimus,statuentes eos in universa Ecclesia inter Sanctos pia devotione recoli debere. In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti” (http://www.rainews.it/dl/rainews/articoli/fedeli-san-pietro-canonizzazioni-papi-wojtyla-bergoglio-ratzinger-messa-sicurezza-ca338206-cf4b-430f-88da-703e318da8c6.html#sthash.z39iYh5p.dpuf); for a rather complicated discussion of what it means for a saint to be revered and honored in contrast to the reverence and honor due God from a Catholic source check out the Catholic Encyclopedia here: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02364b.htm

[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27160127. There is quite a bit of information on the BBC website.

There is a voice in the blood of the martyrs

Over the past three months, I’ve likely used the word ‘protestant’ more than I ever have previously. Actually, I’ve used the word “protestante” in sentences like, “Sono un pastore protestante” (“I’m a protestant pastor”). This comes as part of an effort to ensure my hearers grasp the fact that I have no connection with the Catholic Church (an important thing in Rome). Indeed it’s true I’m not in Italy to make Catholics into Protestants, so to speak, but, rather to see dead sinners live through faith in the Gospel. On the other hand, I’m not heralding the Gospel in a vacuum to people who are a blank slate when it comes to the name Jesus, but rather to a people who are inundated with a false religion that empties the Gospel of Jesus Christ of its power. Therefore, I’m an active protester against this hopeless, Jesus-less religion.

The evangelical air we breathe in the west strives to erase any Gospel distinctive, calling it unity and dubbing it a virtue. Thus it comes as no surprise that some people have fully bought into the thinking that says things like, “At the core, Catholics are Christians just like the rest of us, so why fight about the details?” Or in slightly different dress: “I know a Catholic who knows the Gospel, so you should just leave the Catholics alone!”

Doubtless there are well meaning believers who love Christ, and yet remain unaware of the dangers of the Romish distortion of Biblical Christianity. This isn’t an attack aimed in their direction. This is a Biblical issue, and just like any Biblical issue our hearts need to be shepherded in the Truth. Neither do I mean to over simplify the issues. I’m a sure advocate of the need to be informed about what the Catholic Church really teaches (i.e. in their official documents which anyone with a computer can access). For to speak about what the Roman Catholic Church teaches is different than to speak about the things any one individual Catholic believes.

This post is not an attempt to detail the great chasm that divides Rome and Biblical Christianity. But consider for a minute the Roman doctrines often brushed off as trivial differences: Baptismal Regeneration, Transubstantiation, Mary, and purgatory to name a few. If an infant has their original sin washed away at baptism,[1] continually participates in a ceremony that has the re-sacrificing of Christ at its core,[2] can turn to a sinless Mary who helps in redemption,[3] and can plan to spend time in some sort of pre-heaven place of preparation to work off the consequences of sin,[4] what room is left for the finished cross work of Christ? Would not, to use Paul’s language, have Christ died needlessly (Gal. 2:21)? The Gospel is no secondary issue, and the Gospel is at stake.

All of which brings us to J. C. Ryle and a book I’ve been reading with my family. In 1890 Ryle put together a volume of papers entitled Light from Old Times, which provide biographical sketches of 6 English reformers, martyred for the cause of the Gospel. Ryle’s burden was to awaken his church, the Church of England to the dangers of, the “unprotestantizing” taking place in England 300 or so years post-Reformation:

The danger, in plain words, is neither more nor less than that of our Church being unprotestantized and going back to Babylon and Egypt. We are in imminent peril of reunion with Rome. Men may call me an alarmist, if they like, for using such language. But I reply, there is a cause…The very life of the Church of England is at stake, and nothing less. Take away the Gospel from a Church and that Church is not worth preserving. A well without water, a scabbard without a sword, a steam-engine without a fire, a ship without compass and rudder, a watch without a mainspring, a stuffed carcass without life,–all these are useless things. But there is nothing so useless as a Church without the Gospel. And this is the very question that stares us in the face.–Is the Church of England to retain the Gospel or not?

The premise of Ryle’s work is straight forward. If those who bear the name protestant would but for a minute consider the nearly 300 condemned to the flame by Rome in the 16th century during Bloody Mary’s reign, then any positive moment towards Rome would only come with the greatest circumspection. If Rome has not changed their doctrinal position on things like Transubstantiation (the Real Presence), and indeed she has not, then to call it no big deal is to call the deaths of these saints no big deal.

In the name of the Lord let us set up our banners. If ever we would meet Ridley and Latimer and Hooper (martyrs) in another world without shame, let us “contend earnestly” for the truths which they died to preserve. There is a voice in the blood of the martyrs. What does that voice say? It cries aloud from Oxford, Smithfield, and Gloucester (places of martyrdoms)–“Resist to the death the Popish doctrine of the Real Presence, under the forms of the consecrated bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper!”

You can read light from Old Times for about a dollar on Kindle. Ryle is easy to read and aims to stir hearts with his writing. Read it. There is a voice in the blood of the martyrs.

 

[1] “The essential rite of the sacrament follows: Baptism properly speaking. It signifies and actually brings about death to sin and entry into the life of the Most Holy Trinity through configuration to the Paschal mystery of Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1239. The Catechism is available online here: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM)

“The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. the Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth” (1250).

Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte “a new creature,” an adopted son of God, who has become a “partaker of the divine nature,” member of Christ and coheir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1265).

[2] “It is Christ himself, the eternal high priest of the New Covenant who, acting through the ministry of the priests, offers the Eucharistic sacrifice. and it is the same Christ, really present under the species of bread and wine, who is the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice” (1410).

“As sacrifice, the Eucharist is also offered in reparation for the sins of the living and the dead and to obtain spiritual or temporal benefits from God” (1414).

[3] “Her role in relation to the Church and to all humanity goes still further. “In a wholly singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope, and burning charity in the Savior’s work of restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace” (968).

“This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, until the eternal fulfilment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation….Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix” (969).

[4] “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (1030).

What it Costs to be a Christian

Chapter 5 of J. C. Ryle’s classic, Holiness, is a stirring reflection on the cost of the Christian life (Lk. 14:28). The first section deals with the costs of the Christian life in general categories. There he explains that the Christian life will cost a man his love of ease:

For another thing, it will cost a man his love of ease. He must take pains and trouble, if he means to run a successful race towards heaven. He must daily watch and stand on his guard, like a soldier on enemy’s ground. He must take heed to his behaviour every hour of the day, in every company, and in every place, in public as well as in private, among strangers as well as at home. He must be careful over his time, his tongue, his temper, his thoughts, his imagination, his motives, his conduct in every relation of life. He must be diligent about his prayers, his Bible reading, and his use of Sundays, with all their means of grace. In attending to these things he may come far short of perfection; but there is none of them that he can safely neglect. “The soul of the sluggard desireth, and hath nothing: but the soul of the diligent shall be made fat” (Prov. 13:4).

This also sounds hard. There is nothing we naturally dislike so much as “trouble” about our religion. We hate trouble. We secretly wish we could have a “vicarious” Christianity, and could be good by proxy, and have everything done for us. Anything that requires exertion and labour is entirely against the grain of our hearts. But the soul can have “no gains without pains.” Let us set down that item third in our account. To be a Christian it will cost a man his love of ease (84-85).

Charles Bridges offers a similar reflection on Proverbs 13:4:

 “He would be wise without study, and rich without labor. His religion is of the same heartless character. He desires to overcome his bad habits, to enjoy the happiness of God’s people. He would fain go to heaven, if a morning dream would carry him there… He would gladly be a Christian, if it cost him no trouble” (A Commentary on Proverbs, 151- 152).

Avviso Sacro

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We found this notice posted on the entrance to our apartment. This is one small example of the way that the Roman Catholic church is integrated into Italian life. Here is a quick translation.

Holy/Sacred Notice

Let it be noted that the priest will stop by the condominium of Viale Cesare Pavese 68 for the blessing of the families Thursday 27th from 5:30-7:00. For the families not reached for some reason, the priest will return upon request by the family.

The parish priest,

Father Michele Palermo