The Sign On The Door
October 29, 2017
Today is Reformation Sunday, the day we remember the Protestant Reformation and the Reformed faith. This year Reformation Sunday is of particular importance because we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Today, congregations around the world will remember an event that happened 500 years ago this Tuesday. Martin Luther tacked a folio sheet of “theses” on the castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany hoping to spark a discussion. Instead, he spawned a revolution, a reformation that fundamentally transformed the religious and cultural landscape from that point forward.
We love to celebrate anniversaries. Sometimes, the celebration is more of an observance than a joyous occasion. This year, for example, is the centennial year of America’s entrance into the “Great War,” World War I. Any celebrations so far have been somber, remembering the fallen in that conflict. But birthdays are celebrations. They’re anniversaries in a sense. We celebrate wedding anniversaries, too. And we celebrate notable events or discoveries in history. We celebrate the birthdays of people who made a difference in the world, like presidents, and this year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of a movement ignited by Martin Luther. Actually, it was more of a reformation than a movement. What Martin Luther did October 31, 1517, 500 years ago Tuesday, sparked a protest and reform that came to be known as the Protestant Reformation.
So what did Luther do? He posted a sign on a church door. Luther had written a little tract which had 95 debating points, or “talking points,” which he hoped would be the basis of a discussion of some dubious practices in the church. The tract was called Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. It was written in Latin and printed by a local printer. The printing press was a relatively new media invention at the time, and some argue that without the invention of the printing press, neither the Protestant Reformation nor the American Revolution could have happened. Luther’s 95 propositions were printed on a folio sheet and tacked to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. Church doors were often used as a place to post announcements and advertisements, much like the placards and “For Sale” signs you might see nailed to a telephone pole, or tacked to a community board on a college campus.
These “talking points” caused a stir immediately. This action — the posting of the 95 Theses — was quickly recognized as the beginning of a religious, theological and cultural change of great proportions as early as 10 years later. On the 10th anniversary of this posting, Luther himself and a few of his buddies had a pint in a local pub to celebrate the “trampling out of indulgences.”
What Luther posted was not an essay or a sermon, but a series of propositions or statements about which he hoped there’d be some debate. The major issue, as the title of the document indicates, was indulgences. The first proposition gets right to the point:
Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said repent willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.
The rest of the theses argue similar points. Luther was deeply concerned about selling “get-out-of-jail-FREE” cards called indulgences. These indulgences released people from needing to repent of the bad things they did. The more serious the crime, the higher the cost of the indulgence. An indulgence could also be purchased to shorten the time a loved one needed to spend in Purgatory — a period of purification and cleansing one had to endure before going to heaven itself. A popular jingle at the time that the seller of indulgences would sing was “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.” Luther felt that the church was teaching people that they could literally buy their way into the kingdom of God or buy God’s favor when in fact, the sale of indulgences was fattening the wallets of local pastors, and the treasury of the larger church itself.
Luther argued that sins could not be forgiven nor could salvation be gained by making forgiveness and salvation a commercial transaction. We cannot buy forgiveness, nor can we buy our way into heaven. From these conclusions came three major ideas which have influenced the way we understand our relationship to God to this day. These ideas are — retaining the Latin — sola Scriptura, sola gratia and sola fidei. Only Scripture, only by grace, only by faith.
Central to Luther’s view of the primacy of Scripture – Sola Scritura — is his theology of the cross that emerges from it. While Romans 1:19-20 says that people can know that there’s a God from their experience of the created world, that knowledge does not lead them to know who God is. Paul’s indictment of unbelievers in the following verses is not because they are atheists but because they’ve become idolaters. So Luther says that a person who tries to understand God from what can be observed about the world “does not deserve to be called a Chrisitan.” Instead, Luther argued, a true Christian is someone who “comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” The one in whom we are to trust is the one who hung on the cross — and who was raised on the third day. As Luther says in support of that claim, “True theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ.” Knowledge of how God would have us live comes to us through Scripture and Scripture alone.
Then there is Sola gratia. Only by God’s grace are we reconciled to God. Nothing we do can earn God’s favor. The prevailing view taught by the church at that time was that if you wanted to get into heaven and be saved from eternal damnation, you needed to work for it, or pay for it in an indulgence. Is there a subtle sense in which we still, deep in our hearts, believe that today? We have such a strong sense of the virtue of fairness that we tend to believe that God is also fair. And, being fair, God will give people who try hard, give it their best effort and live a good, clean life a ticket to heaven. Luther said that no one is embraced by God because of good works. God’s world is not a meritocracy. It is only because of God’s grace and unmerited favor that we are invited to be a member of the family of God..
Thirdly, there was Sola fide. Only faith – or only trusting in Jesus puts us right with God.
This view advanced by Luther is also known as “justification by faith alone.” It assumes that there was a great divide between humanity and God. We were in need of reconciliation. This occurred on the cross. We cannot do anything to achieve reconciliation on our own. We can only receive this by faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Then, and only then, are we reconciled with God.
We have no righteousness of our own. Instead, thanks to what Luther called an iustia alienum or “alien righteousness,” we are ourselves considered righteous. Here are Luther’s own words: “Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours. Therefore, the Apostle calls it ‘the righteousness of God’ in Romans 1:17; For in the gospel ‘the righteousness of God is revealed … ; as it is written, “The righteous shall live by his faith.”‘
Luther’s ideas about being made right with God only through Christ reveled to us by scripture, only through the grace of God, and only through faith in Christ set a movement afoot that we now know as the Prote Reformation. Others, including John Calvin, took Luther’s ideas and began other denominations, so that by the 1600s there were not only Lutherans but also Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and others Protestant denominations.
The most important point to remember about Luther and the Reformation is to remember that we are not saved, not made right with God, by anything that we can do or that others can do for us, but only through Christ as made known to us through Scripture, only by God’s grace, and only by faith in Christ.
Sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide.
Only scripture, only God’s grace, and only faith. Amen.