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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’.

11/2 Monday Morning Quarterbacking – Part II

This past sermon I had mentioned a rather befuddling statistic: the Barna Group reported that 83% of those who self-report as evangelicals say that people seek God first, then God responds with grace. Given how misunderstood this point is, I figured I ought to explain it!

Here’s the issue at hand: the idea that someone has to make a move first toward God, and then he grants us mercy (I think a misunderstanding of James 4:8). And what a most natural thought! Most people wait for a perpetrator to come to them before they grant forgiveness; so God must be just like that, waiting for us to seek Him. It also can fit a certain type of experience: we hear stories or maybe your story involved a searching to understand who Jesus was, and then one day you ‘got it’.

This same issue was a huge controversy in the late 300’s AD. A bishop named Pelagius from Britain had heard the famous preacher Augustine say that salvation was by grace alone. He wouldn’t have it! To Pelagius, God would never command anything man was unable to accomplish, so when God gives His law, you are to follow your inner Nike slogan and ‘just do it’. Jesus, according to Pelagius, was a good moral teacher and an example for us to follow as we work on being perfect. Augustine, on the other hand, said that this view doesn’t take sin seriously enough. In the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:15-16), it was certainly true that human beings could obey on their own effort, but after the Fall, sin pollutes our wills (Rom 3:10-12). We are dead spiritually (Eph 2:5). Even if we are given the opportunity to obey, our sinful nature will always choose its own way. Even our best works (by own own efforts) are tainted by sin. (Isa 64:6) God has to break open our will by His grace alone before we can respond with faith. If this is not true, then salvation is our work, not God’s.** Just like blind man who cannot see, the eyes of my heart need to be opened by the hands of Christ before I can peer into the face of Jesus. (John 9:8-14)

I know in my own life, I was very thoroughly running away from God when he rescued me. I was not an honest seeker trying to get at the truth. And that, to me, is one of the most incredible truths of the Gospel: that Jesus seeks the lost, especially the lost that aren’t seeking, that they may be found. If you went through a process of ‘searching’, this is evidence the Lord was drawing you to Himself all along and preparing you to receive the Gospel, not you going at it alone.  And when we realize this, it humbles us, gives God the glory, and empowers the spread of the Gospel. I am not the product of my own ingenuity, but a blind man whose eyes have been opened to gaze on the beauty of Christ.

John 6:44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.”

**Interestingly enough this is not just a Calvinism / Arminianism distinction. Even the Arminian John Wesley believed in God’s movement first (called prevenient grace). While I disagree with the doctrine of prevenient grace, it still proves the point that a Biblical view, in line with the Gospel, is that God comes to us first in order for us to be saved.

10/31 Monday Morning Quarterbacking

Chalk it up to the subject matter of the Reformation, but I felt like I couldn’t fit all my Monday morning quarterbacking in one installment. So here’s part 1, and part 2 is on the way. Today I wanted to talk a little bit about tradition’s role in the life of a believer, and the second installment I wanted to give a few statements about the necessity God’s initiative in salvation.

Deeds not Creeds” is an old motto that has some popularity today. In some circles, there is a desire to be ‘Biblical’, and by that they mean no one should have a statement of faith since the Bible is all you need. (I was told once by my mailman, who came from this perspective, that going to seminary was a waste!) So the fact that our church uses the Westminster Confession, Larger and Shorter catechisms (i.e. our ‘tradition’) as the basic statement of our theology is a problem to that sort of philosophy. Is reciting the Nicene Creed or Apostle’s Creed going against being ‘Scripture alone’? Is this really just Roman Catholicism? I think not.

First of all, creeds and confessions are properly put under the authority of Scripture, not equal to it. In other words, if there is an apparent contradiction, Scripture takes precedence. Creeds and confessions are not made independently of Scripture or overlaid on top of Scripture, but are aimed at summarizing and systematizing Scripture (at least the good ones are!).

Second, it is helpful to the further spread of the Gospel that every generation of Christians doesn’t have to rehash the basics like the doctrine of the Trinity or the nature of Christ’s divinity. It is true that about every year some Christian writer comes out with a book or blog post about ‘revisiting _____ doctrine’, overturning some basic of the faith in favor of a new view. CS Lewis would call this, ‘chronological snobbery’ to think that after 2,000 years of church history, some blogger today has a better handle on say the nature of God.  Tradition doesn’t trump all, but there are many great helps and insights from these summaries of Scripture with polished sentences that have stood the test of time.

Third, creeds and confessions spell out for the world clearly what we stand for as a church, and keeps us accountable to the Word. And furthermore, confessions, catechisms, and creeds can be very pastoral. For example, one of my personal favorites: Westminster Shorter Catechism #87: What is repentance unto life? A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience. Saying your sorry is not enough: repentance means sorry, grief, turning to the Gospel, AND striving to change. This helps me to parent my kids better; it helps me to assess my own repentance.

Far from being a hindrance to being biblical, creeds, confessions and catechisms—or our tradition—ought to be making us plunge more deeply into the word as we read along with the voices of the past the eternal Word which contains our hope in Christ.

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.