31 October 1517 is a date long neglected by most Christian churches. But we need to commemorate and recollect the spiritual legacy of that life-changing event of 496 years ago.
On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and lecturer in Wittenberg University, nailed his 95 theses to the castle door of Wittenberg in Germany. It was, above all, a protest against the sale of indulgences by the agents of Pope Leo X.
That the same fundamental issue is as alive today as it was then, is underlined by a recent report in the Guardian (16 July 2013), stating that the ‘papal court handling pardons for sins says contrite Catholics may win “indulgences” by following World Youth Day on Twitter.
‘Indulgences these days are granted to those who carry out certain tasks, such as climbing the Sacred Steps, in Rome (reportedly brought from Pontius Pilate’s house after Jesus scaled them before his crucifixion), a feat that earns believers seven years off purgatory.
‘But attendance at events such as the Catholic World Youth Day, in Rio de Janeiro, a week-long event starting on 22 July, can also win an indulgence’ (www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/16/vatican-indulgences-pope-francis-tweets).
Remission of sins
What exactly is an indulgence? It is a ‘sacred’ piece of paper which the Catholic Church sells to its people for the supposed remission of their past, present or future sins. It can not only apply to personal sins, but to the sins of others. By proxy, purchased indulgences can reputedly deliver loved ones (and others) from long stretches in purgatory.
The theory goes that the church possesses a treasury of merits. These merits were achieved by those special saints in the past who had more personal ‘merit’ than God required of them. The extras accrued to the church can now be applied to a sinner’s account (at a price, of course) through the medium of indulgences.
In Luther’s day, Rome appointed a super-salesman for indulgences, in the person of a Dominican friar called Johann Tetzel. While peddling his wares in Germany, Tetzel came to Wittenberg.
Luther was so angered with Tetzel’s practice and the reasoning behind it that he wrote his 95 theses and nailed them at Wittenberg, on the eve of All Saints’ Day. This was the spark that set alight the fires of reformation and revival which swept through Germany and Europe.
The Reformation originated with this fundamental question: how can a depraved sinner be made righteous before a thrice holy God? The doctrine of indulgences was, in essence, the Roman Church’s answer: you must pay for your pardon; you must work for and earn your righteousness.
But the Reformers totally disagreed with that stance and gave a radically different answer. Their response was based on Romans 1:17 and 3:28: ‘For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith’; ‘therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law’.
They stood for three vital gospel doctrines, justification by faith, the sole authority of the Scriptures, and the universal priesthood of believers.
Justification by faith
The doctrine of justification by faith teaches that Christ Jesus accomplished, through his sufferings and death on the cross, all that is necessary for salvation. He is the propitiation for our sins who satisfied fully all the righteous demands of God. Sinful man has played no part in his redemption, for Christ paid it all.
Closely related to this is the doctrine of total depravity. According to Reformers like Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and Knox, man is totally depraved with no ability to do good works unto his own salvation.
After the fall of Adam, all men are born in sin and are dead in trespasses and sin (Ephesians 2:1). In 1525, Luther set this forth in his book The Bondage of the will, written as a response to On Free Will by Desiderius Erasmus, a Renaissance scholar from Rotterdam.
Luther maintained that an unregenerate man is a slave to sin. He is a captive prisoner and bond slave to the will of Satan, until savingly redeemed by the blood of Christ. His will is morally crippled, so that it always chooses what is contrary to God’s will.
The Reformation stood for the sovereignty of God, the teaching that God presides and foreordains all things that come to pass, including man’s salvation. In conjunction with this, it confessed the sovereign, gracious election of God, commonly called the doctrine of predestination.
This is expressed in Ephesians 1:4-5: ‘According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will’.
The doctrine of election demolishes every human or institutional effort, including that of the church, to save people by their own or other sinners’ meritorious deeds. And it exalts God’s sovereignty as the fountain of salvation. This doctrine sounded the death knell for indulgences.
Sufficiency of Scripture
The second important Reformation doctrine was the sole, absolute authority and sufficiency of the canonical Scriptures. The Reformers asserted that the Bible alone, not the church, has authority over believers.
This ran contrary to the teachings of Roman tradition, including many of their councils and synods. The Reformers taught that the inspired Word of God is the only standard and rule of faith and practice. This new emphasis shook Rome, who held its members captive by its anathemas, encyclicals and papal bulls.
The Word of God alone and nothing else must govern the life of believers and the church. Before the Reformation, the church had strictly forbidden lay people to read and study the Scriptures on their own. The church’s teaching came through its priests and bishops in its services and masses.
In any case, the Scripture was in Latin, only to be read by the priests and bishops, and not in the vernacular language which the lay people could understand. So for centuries the priests had the monopoly of the Word of God and the ordinary people were deprived of the means of grace.
The Reformation entirely broke with this tradition. Luther translated the New Testament into German in 1522, and William Tyndale translated it into English in 1525. The ordinary ploughman and commoner could now read and understand the Holy Scriptures in his own language.
The foundation and basis for our Christian faith hidden from the people was now given freely to sinners. England would not be the same again for five centuries.
Priesthood of believers
The third important biblical doctrine was the universal priesthood of believers. This teaches that Christ as our mediator has reconciled us to God, so we do not need any human mediator (or mediatrix) to intercede for us or present our cause to God.
Before the Reformation, the church had its ‘intercessors’ in the form of living priests, dead canonised saints and the Virgin Mary. The Reformation demolished such teachings and auricular confession with its ecclesiastical intermediaries.
Christ alone is our mediator, and believers are a kingdom of priests who can come directly to God, through Christ (1 Timothy 2:2-5; 1 Peter 2:9).
The biblical gospel of Jesus Christ has not changed, but neither has Rome. Next month we will look more closely at the implications of these facts.
To be concluded