RetroPost: The Spark of the Reformation

Martin-Luther-95-thesesHe never intended to start a revolution. He was just trying to have a healthy family chat. When Luther nailed his 95 Theses for Discussion to the church door in Wittenberg he was following normal protocol. He wanted to engage other church leaders on important subjects. What happened, however was quite the opposite. Luther’s confrontation of the church shook the entire western world, and it sparked a healthy, Biblical, kind of revolution.

By October 31, 1517 Luther had already been teaching at Wittenberg since October of 1512. He had worked through the Psalms and Romans in his classes and was developing a theology that found him at odds with the larger church body. The more he studied the more divergent his views became from those held by the church. He was a diligent student. To think about all that he must have struggled with is mind-boggling. He would have had to overcome years of indoctrination, difficult textual issues, not to mention the natural difficulty of learning Hebrew. Luther did not come to his theology on a whim, it was a long and arduous process. With each step, however, Luther was seeing glaring flaws in the church’s teaching and practice.

The central issue for Luther was the abuse of indulgences issued by the church. Indulgences were a full or partial remission of punishment for sins. The church was selling indulgences in order to increase funds for the building of their great cathedral St. Peter’s Basilica. They had commissioned the preacher John Tetzel to promote them all over, and his slogans were catching on. “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” This, of course, had to be a church slogan because it is pretty lame. But it worked. People everywhere were wasting their funds on these indulgences in order to lessen their time in purgatory, or on behalf of another. Any sin could be forgiven, the church declared. Tetzel, it is said, at one point contested if you had raped the Mother Mary herself this indulgence could grant you escape of punishment. It was this in particular that Luther despised. Historian Heiko Oberman writes:

One of the central issues of religious life at that time was the question of repentance, confession, and punishment. That Luther made this particular topic his own is evidence that his theology was rooted in preaching and ministry of the church. Luther opposed self-complacency and “slaving away” at good works as well as the breathless pursuit of self-justification when he taught repentance as the basic form of every Christian’s life and not just an occassional emergency measure for the sinner. It was not a tedious “Church obligation” to which a Christian had to subject himself at least once a year; it was the constant profession of humility: only God is righteous. (Luther, 164)

Repentance is a way of life for the genuine believer, he argued. And escape from guilt and punishment for your sins is something only God can offer. These are crucial points to be made today, as they were then.

Luther’s own 95 Theses speak fresh to us today:

1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said , “Repent” (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God…

52. It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters, even though the indulgence commissary, or even the pope, were to offer his soul as security. (The European Reformations Sourcebook, 32-33)

For Luther at the heart of this problem was a misrepresentation of the gospel, and that was serious enough to call the church to a meeting. While he never intended to spark a break from the Roman Catholic Church, he was committed to what Scripture said and committed to the one true gospel.

I wonder if the same can be said for us. There are times where we today must also call the church to account. There are times where we must stand and say, “This is wrong!” I wonder if we have the guts to do that today as Luther did in his day. Could we do it if we knew what the consequences would be. For most of us the consequences aren’t nearly as serious, as life-threatening, and yet we don’t stand and speak. Luther is a model for revolution…even if it is humble revolution. He is a model for Biblical accountability in the church. Are you ready for a possible revolution?

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