What has the sale of indulgences for both the living and dead have to do with paying full penance for our sins?
On 31 October 2017, come and rejoice in this discovery together with Lutherans all over the world as we commemorate the 500th year of Martin Luther’s bold act of nailing his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, which thus birthed the church Reformation.
As Lutherans, it is important we understand and appreciate the significance of this day. So, put your cup of coffee down now, sit in a quiet place and be spellbound as you read Ps Eric Chan’s engagingly written recount leading to this day in church history.
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When doctrines being taught by the church departed from foundational truths and could no longer be reconciled, the Reformation took place.
The reformers fought for the church to return to its foundations – scripture and the study of the early church fathers.
In actual fact, the many doctrinal errors in the lead-up to the Reformation came about not due to the misinterpretation of parts of scripture, but because teaching and tradition had been vested a higher level of authority than the authority of scripture – the Pope was accorded the right to interpret scripture, rather than being subject to the authority of scripture. From this angle, the Reformation can be seen as a return to the scriptures, where scriptural answers take their place as the only standard.
Three important factors served as pre-conditions to the Reformation:
Firstly. In the Middle Ages, literacy was a privilege. Illiteracy meant that commoners were not able to read the Bible for themselves. The subsequent rise of cities and communalization of education meant that more became literate. Near the end of the fourteenth century, an estimated one-third of professionals could read.
Secondly. Before the invention of the printing press, books were few and expensive. Owning a Bible was extremely rare; even small parishes did not always have a copy of the complete Bible, let alone commoners. However, since the advent of the printing press in Europe, the situation began to change and the number of printed Bible increased greatly.
It would not be possible to put Martin Luther’s teaching Sola Scriptura, or “by scripture alone” into practice, if not for these two conditions. Sola Scriptura would remain an idealistic dream.
Thirdly. Before the Reformation, the church’s main problem was not the prevalence of sin and evil, but rather the stronghold of tradition. With changing times, the traditional model of spirituality started to appear outdated. The heavy reliance on the authority of the church, the clergy, and rituals to gain access to God began to be perceived as irrelevant by people who had begun to value independence and experience. Their hope was for the church to help them contextualize their faith in the real world they could see and touch.
Martin Luther – God’s instrument for the Reformation
⊕ Luther’s predicament
Martin Luther was a devout monk who aspired toward perfect purity and a life of complete devotion. He searched for spiritual depth, but often found himself trapped in struggle and despair. He concluded: the more he desired to be humble, the more he found in his heart pride deeply rooted within; the more he desired to be reverent, the more he found the impulse to rebel; the more he longed for purity, the more aware he became of evil and sin in his soul. As Paul wrote in Romans 1:19, “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.” He could find no resolution to this predicament.
⊕ Justification by faith
Luther went on to teach at Wittenberg University. One day, while reading Romans 1:17, a startling truth was suddenly revealed to him. Finally, Luther realized that only the man who lived by faith could be seen as righteous in God’s eyes. It would be impossible for Man to depend on his own ability to merit God’s favour. Instead, only through faith in Jesus Christ could man be seen as righteous in God’s eyes.
Justification by faith became a core doctrine of Lutheran theology. Not limited to what happens at the first moment when a person puts his faith in Christ, Man constantly depends on justification by faith, each and every moment of his life.
⊕ Luther’s objections towards indulgences
Martin Luther also strongly objected to the church’s practice of selling indulgences.
Indulgences originated as documentary proof issued by the church to individuals who had paid full penance for their sins. However, indulgences were soon issued to anyone who was willing to pay a sum of money for them. People were even able to purchase indulgences in advance for their future sins, and even on behalf of their loved ones – living or dead. This corruption had come about because the church was exploiting this practice as a solution to the financial difficulties they were then experiencing.
Luther finally penned down his objections to the sale of indulgences in the “95 Theses”, which he pasted on the then ‘bulletin board’ of Wittenberg University – Wittenberg Castle church’s door. Luther had never intended to start a revolution. However, strong anti-church sentiments had long been brewing in Luther’s society. When the “95 Theses” got into the hands of the masses, they capitalized on the ease of duplication made possible by the printing press and soon, Luther’s simple poster had become a quick fire fuse to social upheaval.
The Pope soon declared Luther a heretic. Luther was issued a warning to repent before two months were up or face excommunication, but Luther instead burnt the warning notice. On 2 January 1521, Luther was finally excommunicated.
Luther was then sent to be heard at the Diet of Worms, which would be presided by Emperor Charles V. Charles V instructed Luther to recant of his words in the “95 Theses”. However, after a night of deliberation, Luther declared before the assembly that he would not recant, as neither scripture nor his conscience would allow him to do so.
⊕ Faith alone, Grace alone, Scripture alone.
Following his statement at the Diet of Worms, Luther was declared an outlaw. This meant that it would be a crime for anyone to feed or shelter him. It was also permitted for anyone to murder Luther without legal consequence. However, his friend, Frederick the Wise, intercepted him by night and brought him to Wartburg Castle where he was hidden for ten months. During this time, Luther translated the Bible
During this time, Luther translated the Bible to the German language and penned a book of hymns. Even more importantly, it was during this time that he established the key tenets of the Reformation – Faith alone, Grace alone, Scripture alone.
Faith alone: To the believers in the middle ages, faith meant confessing statements of religion as declared by the church. This would mean reciting certain creeds and adhering to religious rituals. To Luther, faith was the experience of being gripped by God and being in a relationship with Him. This was faith that begins with God’s faithfulness; that is possible only because of God who takes the initiative to extend His grace to Man, inviting him to have a relationship with Him. Man’s response to God’s initiative, and choice to live in His grace would be considered to be faith. Hence, the object of faith is God himself, rather than a set of creeds.
More importantly, faith is one’s personal response to God. Each person is accountable for his own response to God. Nobody would be able to respond to God on behalf of someone else.
Grace alone: Since there will never be any way by which Man would be able to merit God’s favour, all the benefits God gives to Man are undeserved and stem from His grace towards us. Therefore it is “by grace alone” that God accepts us.
The sale of indulgence reveals a serious lack of understanding of God’s grace. This practice cheapens grace, reducing something priceless to that which can easily be obtained through money. The corruption of the church was based precisely on this lack of appreciation for God’s grace. When man is unable to apprehend the true meaning of God’s grace, religion becomes a casual means of obtaining a superficial sense of peace. When Luther came against the sale of indulgences, he was really addressing the core of the church’s attitude towards religion and theology and calling for an awakening.
Scripture alone: This was the foundation of Luther’s decision to break away from Roman Catholicism. Luther believed that the final authority of the Christian faith should be God’s word – the Bible. Luther found out that the church’s traditions had long departed from God’s word and the church’s authority had therefore become very questionable. Luther believed that the final authority of the bible should rule over all, even the traditions of the church.
⊕ Family life.
From the early days of the reformation, Luther taught that monks and nuns should marry. However, he himself refrained from marriage as he was unsure if he would be able to cope with the many added responsibilities of family life that would come with marriage. Luther finally got married at the age of 42, on 13 June 1525, with Katharina von Bora, a lady of aristocratic birth.
Luther and Katharina had six xhildren in all. Their home was not only a haven for their own family but for the larger community for which they were a part of. For the family, Luther wrote “Table Talk” and the “Large and Small Catechisms” of the faith.
Luther’s legacy – what does it mean for us?
Luther died but Christ, who he proclaimed, lives on. The doctrines which he preached are still the three most essential tenets of the Christian faith:
- The Bible is the highest authority for the Christian faith and our lives.
- Justification is only by faith in Christ, not by good works.
- The priesthood comprises all believers.
Knowing the facts of the Reformation now, let us ask ourselves:
- In defence of truth, Luther almost lost his life. How important is Truth for us? How far are we willing to go in defence of Truth? How far are we impacted by the spirit of Reformation?
- In contrast to the believers in Luther’s time who were rarely able to own a Bible, we have multiple copies of the Bible in many versions and languages. Since the Bible is life and Faith’s highest authority, what place does it have in our lives?
- All believers are priests. But why is it that only a small proportion of believers are willing to serve in the church? Why are we not willing to use our God-given talents to build up the church in one accord?
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See you at the Reformation 500 Years Commemoration.
~Ps Eric Chan