On October 31, 1517 a little known German monk wrote a pamphlet, which he entitled ‘Disputations on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences’. Then, as the story goes, this monk went down to the city of Wittenberg, and nailed his pamphlet to the wooden door of the Castle Church.
This monk was Martin Luther, and we know his pamphlet by another name: Luther’s 95 Thesis. Little did he expect that his thoughts would ignite what is probably the single-most significant event in the life of the Christian church since the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This simple act of Protest lit the fuse of what we call ‘The Reformation’. Luther showed us that sometimes the most God-glorifying thing to do is not to sit quiet and yield to authority, but to speak out and question the wrong that you see. He showed the world that sometimes, when just one mouth is opened and one hand is raised, the entire world can be changed.
There are, for all of us, moments in life where you just have to speak up. There are moments where so much is at stake, something so obviously wrong, that keeping your mouth closed is not an option. This was the situation that Luther found himself in with respect to the work and witness of the Church. It compelled him to do what he did. His choice of October 31 was calculated, because it was All Hallows Eve, and he knew that the villagers, students and fellow college faculty would be filing through the church doors for a special mass, and that while entering some would stop to read his thoughts on the problems of the church at large. Luther wasn’t the first to use this tactic, as it was quite a common practice at the time. Church doors were commonly used as a community notice board. Today, Luther would have posted a blog or tweeted his 95 protests. He wasn’t doing anything that had not already been done many times before. However, given the content of his protests, he would have known that eventually he would draw the attention of the church authorities. But he certainly would not have imagined it would spark such a revolution that is still influencing the life of the Church 500 years later.
The Christian church in Luther’s day was very different from what we know today. Today, the Christian church is like ice-cream, in that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of different flavours and varieties. If you don’t like one flavour you can always try another!
In Luther’s day the exact opposite was the case. There was only one Church, with the Church and State so closely woven together it was often difficult to tell them apart. The Church was an extremely powerful and wealthy institution, a far cry from the faith community established by the disciples and the apostles in the first century. Another way in which the Church of Luther’s day differed from that of the disciples and the apostles was instead of God’s Word being held up as the highest authority of life and rule, it was the office of Pope which had the ultimate say over the life and witness of the Church. For the most part, Luther didn’t have much of a problem with much of what the Church, through the Pope, taught and believed. However, if you were to read his 95 Thesis (his 95 protests), you would discover that he had become increasingly concerned that something of incredible importance had been lost, or at the very least was being lost sight of…it was the Gospel…the Good News of Jesus Christ. In Luther’s day there was little preaching by pastors and almost no Bible Study among the ordinary people. In fact, many pastors were either ill-trained or not trained at all. Knowledge of the Bible was limited to university professors. To all intents and purposes the message of God’s work on behalf of the world through Jesus Christ had become hidden. With the Bible un-preached and with most people unaware, the focus of our faith had shifted off and away from Jesus and on to us.
The Gospel, rather than a message of grace, had become a message of works that put the burden of salvation upon us. This meant that faith became a product of our works, of our own ability to earn our salvation. People would try ever harder and harder to make themselves right before God, and the Church would device various methods to assist the people in the process. But instead of causing people to feel right before God, it made them even more aware of just how far short they were falling. No matter how hard they tried, they never felt that what they did brought them close enough to God. This sense of falling short, wasn’t just restricted to this life…it extended into the life beyond. It was this that led to the Church creating purgatory, as a place where good works could still be done, in the hope of eventually getting it right. Except, it wasn’t you that could do the good works, it would be your family on your behalf. You can imagine just how depressing and soul-destroying trying to be a faithful follower of Jesus must have been during this time. So, the Church came up with a scheme designed to alleviate the distress. You could buy your loved one out of purgatory, or at least buy them some time. The Church sold what became known as Indulgences, a scheme whereby the soul of a loved one could be released from purgatory into the arms of Jesus. The scheme became so popular that it raised a vast fortune for the Church, which was used to build bigger and grander church buildings, and to line the pockets of the Bishops and the Pope. If you’ve ever been to Rome and seen St. Peter’s Basilica you’ll have some idea of the wealth generated by these Indulgences.
Indulgences didn’t work, or least not in the way they were intended. For years, Luther had tried to make himself right before God through good works and acts of penitence. He was a devout and earnest man, who longed for a sense of assurance that he was loved and accepted by God. But the harder he tried the more aware he became of his sinfulness, and the more aware of his sin before God, the less he felt loved and accepted. It was a vicious cycle of desire and disappointment…he desired to please God with all his heart…yet he was constantly disappointed by his failure to gain a sense of assurance. At one point he even considered taking his own life. However, something was to happen that not only set Luther free, but was also to set the Church free. He was reading from the Book of Romans, and Chapter 1 in particular. It was a passage he had read many times before, but this time he read it with new eyes.
This is what Luther said of this experience, ‘When I discovered that, I was born again of the Holy Ghost. And the doors of paradise swung open, and I walked through’. What Luther discovered was this, ‘For in the Gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, “The righteous will live by faith”.’ (Romans 1: 17). What Luther realised, for the first time in his life, was that the righteousness he longed for was not dependent upon his ability to make himself right with God, but rather was a gift we receive from God by faith. What Luther discovered was that our salvation is not dependent upon us, but solely upon God. It is not our right-ness that saves us, but God’s. There is not one thing, apart from faith, that we can do to earn or deserve our salvation. No work, no matter how honourable or worthy, in itself can earn this righteousness before God. Salvation comes by faith alone, in Christ alone. In fact, Luther discovered even more when he read further in the Book of Romans.This time it was Romans 3: 22, which, both in the Latin and English translations says, ‘This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.’ The original Greek, however, reads differently.
For ‘through faith in Jesus Christ’ the Greek reads ‘through faith Jesus Christ.’ The verse, in Greek is translated as ‘This righteousness from God comes through the faith of Jesus Christ.’. That one little word makes all the difference in the world. It means that no matter how small or weak or feeble our faith may be, if we have believed and trusted in Jesus Christ, we are saved. Why? Because our salvation is not dependent upon our faith, but upon the faith of Jesus Christ. His faith is bigger and stronger than ours, and He has done everything necessary to ensure that God considers us as righteous before Him. Now, I don’t know about you, but I find that so incredibly liberating. It means that my relationship with God is not dependent upon me, but upon His free gift of His grace to me through the faith of Jesus Christ. It is His gift to me, and all that I have to do is to receive it in faith.
Thank God for one man’s act of protest, for without it we may never have known that God has done it all for us, for the righteous will live by faith. To God Be All The Glory.