When Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses, I imagine he had little thought about how it would affect not only his life and the Roman Catholic Church of his day, but also how his actions would reverberate throughout history and actually change the world. When he started out, no one expected him to be someone who would change the theological landscape of Europe in the 1500s. In fact, it was a complete surprise to his family that he became a theologian in the first place.
His ambitious father, Hans, was involved in the mining business. He wanted Martin to become a lawyer to help the family become upwardly mobile in society, so he sent Martin at the age of 17 to the University of Erfurt were he earned both his B.A. and then a M.A. degree in philosophy. He did all this in the shortest time allowed for students, and classmates gave me the nickname “The Professor.”
Completing his M.A. degree in 1505, Martin enrolled at the same university and began to study law. Everything was going according to his father’s plan until July 2, the day he was caught in a terrible thunderstorm. Travelling back to the university from his home, he was caught in a thunderstorm and almost stuck by lightning. Out of fear and desperation, he cried out, “St. Anne, save me! I’ll become a monk!”
Luther survived the lightning strike and fulfilled his vow. Twelve days later he sold his books and gave all his earthly possessions away and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt without telling his family. That decision led him on a personal spiritual quest that at times became obsessive, but the Lord used his deep desire to be reconciled to God to help Luther recover central truths of the Christian faith which had been lost or obscured by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. One key moment in Luther’s quest occurred when he was studying the Book of Romans.
David Zahl in a wonderful article on Luther encourages us to picture in our minds an earnest-looking monk in his mid-30s sequestered in one of the small rooms in the tower of his cloister. He is hard at work on a fresh set of lectures for the university where he serves as a professor of theology, but the work is not going well. He has hit a roadblock. The first verses of Romans have been keeping him up at night, especially v.17: “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”
Like most who studied theology in the early 1500s, Martin Luther had been trained in the scholastic tradition of the Middle Ages, which interpreted Paul’s phrase in Romans 1 as shorthand for the awesome holiness of God which should cause sinners to be afraid. In the monastery Luther became notorious for spending countless hours in the confessional, trying to get right with God, but he found no comfort. The deeper he dove into the system of confession and penance, the deeper his despair of ever pleasing God became. As he would later admit, he had begun to hate a God who he felt demanded the impossible.
But this particular day was different. As he pain-stakingly worked through the passage in Romans 1, he experienced another lightning bolt. But this one was a lightning bolt of inspiration. This is how Luther later described it: “I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and the sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors to paradise.”
The rest is history. We now look back to this amazing man and his remarkable work in Germany that helped to ignite the Reformation in 1517, and initiated a discussion about religious rights and liberties that changed the course of history. We will be forever in Luther’s debt for the remarkable insights into biblical truth he provided. He was a larger-than-life personality who was given to excess, but God used his passion, personality, and enormous intellect to breathe new life and the power of the Holy Spirit into a corrupt and flawed Church and also set the world on fire.
In his own day, the apostle Paul sought to combat Christians who compromised the doctrine of free grace by requiring that believers observe Jewish laws and rituals such as circumcision. In their day, the Reformers like Luther also had to counter the idea of works-righteousness. This is the notion that one can earn one’s way to heaven, which had become a part of Catholic theology and practice in the 16th century.
The prevailing view at the time was that at one’s baptism the work of Christ removed the eternal consequences of sin, but the temporal consequences remained for sins committed after one’s baptism. Therefore, it was thought that people must still pay penalties in this life and in the life to come (through purgatory) for sins that a person committed after their baptism. It was believed that by prescribing works of penance that the church could enable a person to make adequate amends his/her sins.
But the church also added that people could avoid this painful process, by means of an “indulgence” granted to them by the church in return for some special service to the church. One could also draw on the good works of holy people done in the past (the saints) and have their good deeds credited to one’s spiritual account vicariously. Eventually, indulgences began to be offered for sale with the guarantee that the sufferings of this life and purgatory itself could be curtailed or even canceled. J.J. Tetzel, a contemporary of Luther, was the one who coined the phrase that provided false words of assurance, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!”
It was thought that humankind had to ascend to God in order to be accepted by Him. But Luther began to discover that no, it is not a matter of us ascending to glory with us raising ourselves to the level of God. Rather, it was God who descended to us in our sinful humanity through the person of Jesus Christ in a theology of the cross. And because of His death on our behalf we can now understand and appropriate God’s love for us in the person of Christ.
It was then that Luther began to realize that the gospel of Jesus Christ had been lost in the medieval church, and the selling of indulgences was exhibit A. All of this prepared the way for the Reformation.
Have you ever tried to pay back God for your salvation? I remember as a young Christian I did. In college after I came to a fuller understanding of God’s love for me in Christ and all He had done in dying for my sins, I proceeded to try to pay back God for my salvation. But I discovered it was a losing proposition. You can never pay back God for what He has done. All you can do is receive His free gift, His unmerited love.
I can remember a time that l heard someone speak on this topic and it crashed through into my heart and mind with a lightning bolt of my own when the speaker said these words: “Nothing you can do or say will ever make God love you more or make Him love you less than He does right now.” It is by grace that you have been saved through faith, that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not the result of works. We cannot earn it, so no one is in a position where they can boast.
The gospel of God’s grace freely given in Jesus Christ is good news not only to the people of Luther’s day, but to everyone who knows they need a Savior. The Reformation matters because it recovered central doctrines of the Christian faith that had fallen into disrepair in the Roman Church of the Middle Ages. The significance of these doctrines and their central place in Christian theology cannot be overstated.
Our forebears of the Reformation laid a foundation which has lasted for 500 years. What legacy of faith will we leave? In our church? In our children? For our community? In 150 years from now, 25 years from now, what will the witness of your church for Christ be? What will your witness be? What kind of legacy are you leaving for your children and grandchildren? For what will you be remembered?
Having buried my wife, Lorie, last year has brought a new awareness of my own mortality. Not one of us knows when God will call us home to heaven. We do not know how many years we have left to be a witness for Christ. Life is more fragile than any of us realize. I leave you with this challenge. The Christian Faith is one that has deep roots in the past while it looks forward to the future.
Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
the God of Paul, Peter and Priscilla,
the God of Irenaeus, Origen and Augustine,
the God of Aquinas, Francis and Anselm,
the God of Luther, Calvin and Knox, and
the God of your family and mine.
You and I build on a foundation that was laid by great men and women of the past who faithfully followed the Lord Jesus Christ and sought to be His people in their day and time. The clarion call of the Reformation is applicable to us today. We are the church reformed and always being reformed, always seeking to be the best Christ wants to give us by His grace, and always building the Body of Christ into a community of love and compassion and truth and justice. It was true 500 years ago at the Reformation. It is still true today.
The Reverend Dr. Peter Barnes is Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church (ECO), Winston-Salem, NC