On October 31st, I reflect on the acts of Martin Luther, Reformation Day, and the 95 Theses. Martin Luther was a flawed man, and certainly is due some criticism, as are we all, much the same as Constantine, King James, Columbus are all flawed, and therefore vilified by many a likewise-flawed individual despite certain great accomplishments, the benefits of which we still reap to this day.
Often when anyone is celebrated, it becomes human nature to tear that person down for wrongs, or missteps, a lack of perfection, and the legacy of that person is painted with that brush; yet who among us, whether now or even moreso ensconced in those cultures of yesteryear, can claim perfect judgement in tumultuous times.
But what is celebrated on Reformation Day is the day that Martin Luther walked up to the church doors of Wittenberg, and nailed his 95 theses to it, 95 propositions that he was prepared to defend. This event caused a fight over truth that reverberated throughout history, and ripped the fabric of the Christian church down the middle.
The Reformation had been seeded in other areas already, and contains many other important reformers and events. People worked to allow the bible to be produced in native languages, rather than only Latin, illegal at the time; a mission of John Wycliffe, and William Tyndale, who translated the bible into English, and some of whose followers were burned to death for what the Pope considered a heresy. Tyndale himself was tied to a stake and strangled in the town of Filford in 1536 before being burned. Before this martyr’s death, he stood with zeal shouting, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!”
Before these major players of the Reformation, Jan (John) Hus of the Czech Reformation was burned at the stake for heresy on July 6th, 1415. He is considered the first church reformer, living before Martin Luther, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli. After earning two degrees, he was ordained a priest in 1400, and after only 2 years, was calling for reformation, and speaking out against indulgences (to be discussed later). Hus wrote, “One pays for confession, for mass, for the sacrament, for indulgences, for churching a woman, for a blessing, for burials, for funeral services and prayers. The very last penny which an old woman has hidden in her bundle for fear of thieves or robbery will not be saved. The villainous priest will grab it.”
Even earlier than Hus, however, we can see efforts to spread the gospel of grace over works. Valdes (founder of the Waldensians), and his followers were banished and forbidden to preach by Pope Lucius III, and were the subject of relentless persecution in the 12th century. They were formally condemned in 1184, and suffered such severe persecution by the Catholic Church, they were forced to travel and teach in secret, usually in two’s, and usually unmarried men, as they expected to die for their choice.
And no write-up of the Reformation would be complete without mentioning John Calvin, a man who’s clarity of thinking we bring to bear to this day, and a man who’s strict adherence to the scriptures, and whose battle with Arminianism deserves its own in depth study, regardless of where you fall in that debate. Calvin strongly stated, regarding Solus Christus (Christ alone), “Whoever is not satisfied with Christ alone, strives after something beyond absolute perfection.”
But on this day, October 31st, Martin Luther’s act of defiance in 1517 began a chain reaction that led ultimately to the Reformation, and the reclaiming of the New Testament Church, as well as the doctrine of Grace Alone, rather than the rampant use of Indulgences, or paying the church to absolve sins and reduce the time one must spend in purgatory, a pervasive part of religious life at the time. Martin, despite how artwork depicts the scene, was not surrounded by a throng of angry people, and did not expect the series of events that followed. He was simply, after studying, pointing out the misuse of religion to accrue money, and wanted people to be focused on Christ and saving grace . The collecting of these indulgences made their way to Germany, and that was where he made his stand. Indulgence was a well established part of culture, and over the last couple hundred years had grown not only to incorporate paying for remission of sin for an individual, but accepting payments for dead relatives believed to be in Purgatory as well. Paying the Catholic church, it was taught, would move them right along to heaven, for a fee.
Late in the 14th Century was introduced the “Treasury of Merit” concept, which is the idea that with a long history of saints having stored up good works, a bank of good deeds had been saved up. It became customary to believe that the works beyond their own salvation the saints had accrued, could be applied to others, again for a fee. The Popery had control over who would be allocated this saved up merit, thereby holding salvation for ransom. This of course is not found in the bible.
Romans 3:21–28; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8–9; Philippians 3:8–11
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for fall have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus
27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law
16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast
8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having fa righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead
The back story? The catalyst was a man named Albert of Mainz, a German in a high and powerful office within the Church, an Archbishop. It took substantial monies to secure this position, and Indulgences were a way to pay these loans back after securing a position of power. He had to ask permission of course, but as luck would have it, the St Peter’s Basillica built by Constantine was in dire need of a renovation, and Pope Leo X allowed Albert to institute Indulgences in Germany, as long as he split the profits with Rome.
The practices of extorting the layety’s money is well known:
Proceeding the fiery preaching about how dead relatives were suffering, the indulgence chest would arrive. Then came the sermon about how loved ones are needlessly tormented and suffering in penance and agony day in and day out, painting the bleakest of pictures. At the end, they would offer a way out if you paid, an official signed document from the Catholic Church for the remission of sins, and finish with the now infamous statement: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.”
The words ‘sola gratia’, or Grace Alone, defined the movement as a whole, which rebelled against the idea that the cross was not enough: [Colossians 1:20… making peace by the blood of his cross]; but what makes Martin Luther such an amazing figure in church history, is that he set this movement off accidentally. He was completely unaware of the deal the Pope had made with Albert, for though the indulgences business was booming, the back door deal between Germany and Rome had not been publicized. Without knowing it, and based purely on spiritual conviction, he was unwittingly taking on two of the most powerful people in the world at that time, by criticizing their lucrative schemes.
Keep in mind that the Theses themselves were not condoning a split from the church, and were in and of themselves not overly argumentative. Based on his letters, he seemed quite surprised at the response of the Catholic church, and didn’t realize the political trap he had just stepped on. In fact, as a professor, it was a common way to present a theory or argument for debate so you could hear the other side in case you were wrong. The build up to it, and the actions that followed were the domino effect of that one event that Luther considered a innocuous statement. It wasn’t until the hornet’s nest had been accidentally kicked, that Luther had to muster his courage to stand firm on his interpretation of scripture.
Historians know much about Luther’s death, February 18, 1546, because they were recorded in detail by his deathbed confessor, Justus Jonas. Jonas wished to give an account in case false rumors might arise from enemies (which did happen). One rumor was that Luther had died suddenly or in his sleep. Back then it was falsely believed that if a person was wicked, they would die without time to confess their sins, condemning them to hell, a doctrine also not found in scripture. Likewise, Roman Catholics circulated the claim that Luther had died in a state of terror, believing he would be eternally condemned. But, Jonas recorded that Luther’s last hours were lucid and conscious. He confessed his sins and affirmed his faith in Christ, along with everything else that he had taught.
It is safe to say that we don’t always know how God will use people, and it is interesting that such a seemingly benign action by a professor could spark not only so many deaths, but the eventual Reformation itself, where people were grateful to learn the true power of the cross, and were grateful to have a Bible written in their own language. It wasn’t always so.
So when you think upon Reformation Day, this October 31st, let us remember all that transpired to put the true gospel of Jesus Christ in our hands, as recorded in our New Testament. A gospel of grace, instead of works.
Titus 3:4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.