It is exactly 500 years since 31 October 1517, the day when Martin Luther placarded 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg. This seemingly obscure event was arguably the flame that lit the touchpaper and the beginning of the sixteenth century Reformation.
Luther’s theses went viral in Germany and Switzerland. There followed a storm of protest against the mediaeval Catholic church as their contents were digested. A year later Luther was cited in Rome for heresy.
What was the furore all about? And are its issues still relevant today? In a word, yes, the issues are still absolutely vital. At the root of the Reformation was Luther’s and the other Reformers’ rediscovery of the supreme authority of Scripture, over against the authority of the church, the pope and all other human institutions.
For many weeks during 1516, Martin Luther had been pondering ‘night and day’ the meaning of Romans 1:17 — ‘For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith’ — until at last its meaning dawned on him and became for him a ‘gate to heaven’, as he personally embraced justification by faith in Christ.
His 1517 Wittenberg protest was against the flagrant simony of indulgences. In his theses, he affirmed that remission of sins is not a commodity to be bought by cash, but the fruit of true inward repentance. The first thesis announced: ‘When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent” (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance’.
Many religious people, and not a few professed evangelicals, today maintain that the Reformation was a mistake, for which both Luther’s and Rome’s intransigence were equally responsible: two immoveable forces locking horns in an over-the-top dispute.
They maintain that it is a crying shame that Christendom, now faced by the forces of secularism and militant Islam, is still fragmented rather than in organic and organisational unity. They accept Luther’s sixteenth century protest against ecclesiastical abuses was justifiable, but consider its resolution too dearly bought, since it resulted in ‘schism’ as much as ‘Reformation’.
Such ambivalence is found today, for example, among those evangelicals who remain comfortable in churches that have sold out on the gospel. For what else could hold true believers in visible association with those denying the fundamentals of the Christian faith, except the suspicion that separation from heresy is schism rather than reformation?
Yet — as Luther affirms in his first thesis — our Lord Jesus Christ reveals what the issues really are. For, when Jesus said, ‘Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matthew 4:17), he shows us what true contrition, and therefore true salvation, and therefore the true church, are.
For a long time the mediaeval church had packaged ‘repentance’ into a regular ecclesiastical ritual for the laity called ‘penance’. This penance required confession of sin by the contrite to the priest and was followed by absolution by the priest.
In the medieval church, it had been only a small step for some to turn this priestly absolution into a kind of ‘promissory note’ granted to anyone contrite enough to pay for it with hard cash. That down-payment secured an ‘indulgence’ that would be invested using the pope’s good offices.
The pope, his benevolence stimulated by donations, would use his special access to the merits of the ‘saints’ and obtain relief from the pains of purgatory for any named beneficiaries, having been paid up-front. Although Rome does not sell her indulgences for cash any more, the astonishing abuse of the gospel through ‘indulgences’ still operates in the twenty-first century!
Martin Luther could not sit idly by and see the German people deceived and fleeced like that. He knew from his own long and traumatic conviction of sin, and subsequent deliverance, that there could be no peace for sinners that way. Error must be exposed, truth proclaimed and the people given spiritual light.
His theses (and their Explanations, written in 1518) argued that repentance is not a single external act, but an ongoing, life-transforming, heart attitude. It is a complete change of mind about sin (which the Greek word for repentance — metanoia — implies). It leads to grief for, and hatred of, sin, and brings the sinner, in turn, the blessed comfort of divinely bestowed forgiveness (Matthew 5:4).
Luther argued that, ultimately, neither pope nor church can secure forgiveness. Only God can create in sinners a broken heart for sin; only God can blot out the sinner’s transgressions.
This means that the true treasure of the church is not the merits of the saints, but ‘the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God … [which] is a preaching of the incarnate Son of God, given to us without any merit on our part for salvation and peace…
‘When the sinful conscience hears this sweetest messenger, it comes to life again, shouts for joy while leaping about full of confidence, and no longer fears death … or hell…’ (Thesis 62 and Explanation).
It is as true now as it was at the Reformation that salvation is the gift of God’s grace to sinners. It cannot be bestowed by the church, nor created by sacrament or mere human decision. Burdened sinners can only obtain a heart to repent, and every other inward spiritual blessing, as the gifts of God’s grace through the gospel of Jesus Christ; ‘the entire life of believers is one of repentance’.
These fundamental truths are denied whenever the Reformation is downplayed; and also denied when professed Christians treat as ‘brethren’ those whose theology and practice radically deny this same gospel.
Our task today as evangelicals is to rediscover and again proclaim the unchanging biblical gospel in all its glory, centring, as it does, upon justification by faith in Christ. We are to be gripped by the same unchanging truths that stirred Luther and the other Reformers.
May it yet please God to glorify his Son through his gospel! May, once more, many hundreds of thousands in Europe and throughout the world embrace unchanging Reformation truths, to the eternal salvation of their souls.