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Luther and the Reformation – Notes and Tidbits

This October 31st, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the nailing of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses to the doors of Wittenberg Chapel that started the Protestant Reformation. For many of you, this has a lot of significance, for others maybe not so much or you are not very familiar with the origins of the Reformation and its importance today. So I wanted to take just a brief moment to give you some bullet points on the context, and maybe give you a few tidbits you may not be aware of! This October I will be preaching a sermon series on the Five Solas (Alones) of the Reformation, so hopefully, this peaks your interest.

ALSO: This October I will be preaching a sermon series on the Five Solas (Alones) of the Reformation, so hopefully, this peaks your interest!

– Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a Catholic monk who taught theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. It was in his own study of the book of Romans that he began to change his views about God’s grace, Christ, and faith. Instead of seeing salvation as something that he had to work toward, he found that the Bible clearly taught it was by God’s mercy in Christ that we are saved.

– He did not see himself as a revolutionary, but he wanted the church to be corrected and uphold good, Biblical practices. Hence the movement that resulted is referred to as the ‘reformation’ rather than the ‘revolution’ because Luther (Calvin and others) saw themselves trying to correct the church universal rather than starting a new one.

– The ’95 Theses’ were 95 sentences that were up for academic debate at the university. Pinning articles of debate on the chapel doors was not all that unusual. It was similar to maybe an academic blog of today. Luther wanted to debate the points, but it was quickly taken and printed by unknown printers who distributed the work.

– The ’95 Theses’ were not full-fledged Luther in the sense that he was very much still reflecting many Roman Catholic doctrines. The issue that caused Luther to write the 95 Theses was the sale of indulgences.**

– At the time, the Roman Catholic Church taught that Christians who had not done their best to live righteous lives had to ‘burn off’ their impurities in Purgatory after death. This process could take hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years, according to church tradition. But the extra merits from the good works of Jesus and the saints were stored in heaven, and the Pope could distribute these merits as ‘indulgences’ for a person’s sins or for a loved one who is stuck in Purgatory. Pope Leo X needed funds to pay for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica, and he began a campaign of selling indulgences to raise the funds. A man named Johann Tetzel had peddled indulgences throughout Germany with some pretty underhanded fear-mongering, which Luther took exception to.

– But remember, Luther still (at this point) had the belief the Roman Catholic Church could be reformed and returned to its original orthodoxy. In fact, he believed that if only the Pope knew the abuses that were taking place, he would denounce the sale of indulgences. Thesis #50, “Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.” If anything, at that point, Luther was defending the Pope!

– Yet, in response to the 95 Theses, Roman Catholic officials, and the Pope refused any debate with Luther but told him to recant or be condemned. It was Luther’s refusal to recant because Scripture compelled him was the beginning of the Reformation, of which we are inheritors of.


Next Week:

Why preach on the Five Solas of the Reformation?

** The Council of Trent (1563) abolished the selling of indulgences for money, however, the council also stated the practice of printing and giving of indulgences was ‘most salutary to Christians’.

10/20 Repent!

As I have been doing some research this week for my sermon on October 30th or Reformation Sunday, I was struck by the first three theses of the famous 95 Theses* Martin Luther nearly 500 years ago (Oct 31, 1517) nailed to the doors of Wittenberg Chapel. Here they are:

  1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
  2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
  3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.

What a beautiful little summary of repentance! For starters, Luther says repentance is a life-time action; it is a way of life rather than a momentary event. If you want to know what the Christian life should look like, it is not necessarily an ever growing theological library, nor is it greater social engagement, it is seeing our sins and turning to Jesus constantly. Second, Luther dislodges repentance from the formalized structure of his time. I think what Luther is getting at here is that repentance is between us and God, it is not a thing we do so we can check a box. It is a matter of the heart. Finally, Luther describes how repentance is not repentance without outward action, crucifying the flesh, learning to hate our sin and trusting in Christ more AND striving for a renewed following after Christ. Contrary to many caricatures of Luther, he believed that true faith is never alone, that good works always accompanied true faith (and even those are a gift!) since it is the Holy Spirit who is bearing fruit in our lives.

*In case you are not very familiar, here is a very brief description of the 95 Theses’ origin:

The 95 Theses were 95 propositions or areas the Professor Martin Luther wanted to debate. When any doctor of theology wanted a public discussion, he would post his thesis or theses to the doors of the chapel (kind of like a seminary blog post today that invites responders to write in). What Luther did wasn’t absolutely out of the question for his day in a college town (plenty of professors had nailed things to the doors of Wittenberg Chapel). What was surprising was the content of some of his theses went after the sale of indulgences (little slips of paper the church was selling that granted forgiveness for a particular sin, even a future one). Luther created a debate in the larger culture outside academia about the abuses of the church and a desire to return to something that more resembled true biblical faith. And that is where the Reformation caught fire.