Reformation Courage

screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-9-02-35-pmOctober 31 is the 499th anniversary of the Reformation, observed this Sunday. The blessing of the Reformation is the return of a distracted church to the truth of Christianity that eternal salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, through faith in Christ our Lord. Here’s a brief summary:

  • In the late 15thcentury the Catholic Church was afflicted by internal corruption.
  • The sale of “indulgences,” raised money to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
  • Indulgences made people believe deceased loved ones could be released from purgatory.
  • The sales slogan was: “When a coin in the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory springs.”
  • Onto this scene arrived a troubled man named Martin Luther.
  • Luther saw God as a God of justice and was tormented by fears over unresolved sin and guilt.
  • In a thunderstorm during which his traveling companion was killed by a bolt of lightning, Luther exclaimed, “Save me, St. Anne. I will become a monk!”
  • He survived, became a monk, but could find no peace with God through his own effort.
  • Luther’s discovery of God’s grace came from Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
  • Also Romans 1:16-17: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…The righteous shall live by faith.”
  • What happened next was an act of courage, motivated by the truth Luther had discovered.
  • He boldly spoke truth to power by posting his 95 theses, intended as an invitation for debate on topics of faith and church practice.
  • Pressure was placed on him to retract his criticism of church belief and practice.
  • He refused to do so and was threatened with excommunication from the Catholic Church.
  • Asked to retract his words, Luther stated: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
  • Ultimately, Luther was excommunicated for refusing to retract his newfound beliefs.
  • Thus began what is known as the Protestant Reformation.

My Reformation question, to you and to myself, is this: If we were to conclude that a teaching or practice of the church was not based on clear passages of Scripture or was mandated by the church but not commanded by Holy Scripture or was not allowed by the church but not forbidden by Scripture, would we have the courage to speak our conviction?

Thank God for the Reformation courage Luther displayed in doing just that nearly 500 years ago!

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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!