Martin Luther – Celebrating 500 Years Since the Beginning of the Reformation Part 2
In the second part of our series on Luther, Associate Pastor Bruce Atkinson
explains how Luther’s 95 theses lit the fuse of the Reformation causing the
rediscovered truth of Justification by Faith alone to explode across Europe.
Last month’s article mentioned that by 1517 Europe was ready socially, politically, and religiously for a spiritual explosion. This explosion was to become known as the Reformation and Martin Luther triggered the detonator on the 31st October 1517, in nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door. These theses dealt with the central issue of who had the authority to forgive sins. The pope was raising funds by the selling of ‘indulgences’ which were meant to reduce the time you would spend in purgatory by forgiving sins committed in return for money. One of the most effective sellers of indulgences was a monk called Johannes Tetzel who visited Wittenberg with his famous slogan: As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, The soul from purgatory springs.
When Luther heard Tetzel preaching he reacted with his 95 theses in complaint. In these theses Luther protested that the pope did not have the authority to forgive sins, and even if he had wouldn’t he just forgive everyone instead of charging them for it? Instead of decorating its cathedrals with the money of exploited poor peasants, the church should instead be ministering to its needy flock.
Behind Luther’s 95 theses lay the theological foundation of the whole Reformation, Luther’s rediscovery of the Bible truth of Justification by Faith alone. As a young man Luther had begun studying to become a lawyer, but whilst on a journey one day a bolt of lightning struck the ground next to him throwing him off his horse. Luther cried out: Saint Anne, help me! I will become a monk!
Luther became an Augustinian monk and his main goal was to be saved from going to Hell. He thought that being a monk would give him the greatest opportunity of personal salvation possible. As a young monk Luther did everything he could to be worthy to be saved: fastings, pilgrimages, austerity, and denial. His colleagues feared for his sanity so obsessive did he become in his behaviour. Yet in all this
extreme asceticism Luther also began to study the scriptures in their original languages of Hebrew and Greek.
As a new lecturer in the University of Wittenberg, Luther studied the scriptures hoping to find some assurance of a loving, kind, God in the midst of his fear of impending judgement. Amazingly he began to see that when Paul wrote about the gospel of righteousness in the letter to the Romans he wasn’t speaking of a set standard of holiness that needed to be attained by good works for salvation. Rather the ‘righteousness of God’ was a free gift to the sinner, and all the sinner needed to do to receive it was to believe. To be justified is to be declared righteous – not guilty before the throne of God through faith alone in Christ alone. Luther saw that the believer is ‘at one and the same time a righteous person and a sinner’ (simul iustus et peccator). Luther realised that the gift of righteousness was located outside the believer – being reckoned, accounted and imputed to us by faith even while we are yet sinners.
Luther’s rediscovery of the truth of Justification by Faith alone ‘pulled the rug’ from underneath the whole medieval church system of works, penance, indulgences, and priest craft being the prescribed path to heaven. The teaching of Justification by Faith alone was to have massive spiritual, social, political and religious ramifications in the years following Luther’s rediscovery.
When Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door and it went viral through the power of the printing press, the message of Justification by Faith alone had found an opportunity in which to travel throughout Europe. Next month we will see how this truth spread. ❖
Acknowledgements: Christianity’s Dangerous Idea by Alister McGrath (SPCK)
In the fourth and final part of his series Associate Pastor Bruce Atkinson gives a broad overview of what we mean when we use the term Reformation. Alister McGrath in his excellent book Reformation Thought: an Introduction explains that when we...
In part 3 of his series Associate Pastor Bruce Atkinson describes the reaction to Luther’s 95 theses Last month we looked at how 500 years ago Martin Luther rediscovered the central Bible truth of Justification by faith alone. The 95 theses posted onto the Wittenberg...
In the first part of a new series Associate Pastor Bruce Atkinson describes the political and spiritual situation that roused Martin Luther into action. This year celebrates 500 years since the start of what we now call the Reformation. On 31...