“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” -2 Tim 3:16-17
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” –Eph 2:8-9
October 31st marks the 500th Anniversary of when Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, sparking The Reformation. The theses were theological arguments meant to confront positions held by the Roman Catholic church that Luther felt were an abuse of power.
The main abuse that Luther confronted were indulgences. Indulgences were official pardons of sin signed by the pope himself, that guaranteed the forgiveness of sins and release from purgatory. With the pope’s blessing, a monk named Johann Tetzel toured Germany to offer indulgences to anyone willing to pay for them. Tetzel used to say to stunned crowds “Can you hear your dead relatives screaming out in pain in purgatory while you fiddle away with your money?” Horrified at the thought thousands paid to release them. As people lined up to purchase indulgences, Tetzel would announce “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”
Luther posted his theses in an attempt to argue that the Roman Catholic position on indulgences was an abuse of power, believing that the pope himself would hear of it and be appalled. Pope Leo X, more a business man than a theologian, couldn’t argue with the new income stream, and dismissed Luther’s argument altogether, calling it “the ramblings of a drunken German” and insisting he would “think differently when he sobers up.”
Luther, however, was very concerned about theology, and he saw first-hand the devastating effects the theology of Rome was having on the lives of the people he ministered to. What began as an argument against being able to purchase God’s grace from Rome quickly became an argument about the essence of God’s grace itself. For the next several decades, a decisive shift would take place in Europe, and for the first time in over 1000 years, the gospel would be preached throughout the land, and millions would hear that full forgiveness of sins can be obtained not through a governing church body, but by any person who puts their faith and trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
It would be wrong to think that Luther winsomely presented an alternative means of salvation that was well received by the masses. There is an underlying principle in this message that cannot be ignored, and that principle is this: The Word of God is the sole and final authority in all matters of life and godliness.
Luther discovered the gospel through his study of the Bible, and he noticed that it was different than the gospel being presented by the Roman Catholic church. As a good priest, he believed in the authority of the church, so he had a difficult choice to make. Would he allow his conscience to be held captive to the church, or to the Word of God?
Luther chose the Word. He was excommunicated, and commanded to recant his position. At his final trial, he said-
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus, I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”
If the reformation was about anything, it was this: a return to the Word of God as the sole and final authority in all manner of life and godliness. It was that principle Luther, and many others before him and since were willing to risk their lives to proclaim and defend. Even though many will be celebrating Halloween a different way this year, let’s reclaim that holiday, and take some time this October 31st to thank God for the work He did 500 years ago in Germany to preserve the precious treasure of His Word. In many ways, the Reformation is not over. There will be new battles to fight to keep ourselves faithful to God’s Word. May God give us grace as a church to remain faithful to Him.