Some Things Haven’t Changed


Sale of Indulgences

The sale of indulgences, as depicted in a woodcut by Jörg Breu the Elder, c. 1530
Credit: Wikipedia

News that caught my attention last week was in Time magazine (August 5, 2013) in the section titled The Culture. It read: “Tech-savvy Catholics will spend less time in purgatory—or so says Pope Francis. The Pontiff has decreed that people who follow the events of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro via the Vatican’s Twitter feed can get indulgences, which Catholics believe reduce time spent atoning for sins in the afterlife.”

Bummer! And just when it seemed the largest Christian Church in the world was beginning to move in the right direction. Pope Francis has done things in the early days of his papacy that provide hope to many, both in and beyond the church he leads. But, alas! One very important matter is still in need of papal rectification—the doctrine of justification by grace through faith.

In our Lutheran understanding, that doctrine on which the church stands or falls is described with the words sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura. We believe the Bible teaches that a sinner is justified—forgiven and declared right with God by God’s grace alone, through God’s gift of faith alone, communicated in God’s Word alone.

That’s the central teaching of the Christian faith, expressed by Holy Spirit-inspired St. Paul:  
“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 (and not a product purchased by tech-savvy Twittering—my words, not Paul’s), so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)

The primary focus of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses was this doctrine. He wrote directly against indulgences, especially in Thesis # 27: “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.”

Why was this necessary? Because Johann Tetzel, a Reformation era penance peddler, chanted in his sales pitch: “As soon as the coin in the coffer clings, the soul from purgatory springs!”

With due respect and love for the 1.2 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church and their papal leader, it appears the primary issue that catalyzed the Reformation is still an issue. Apparently some things, including that thing, haven’t changed in 500 years!

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always!

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