Martin Luther and the Reformation

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This post was written by my good friend and pastor, Kevin Smead.  On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther rocked the world by daring to question non biblical doctrines held by the church at that time. He swept away the cloud around how a person is made right with God. For centuries the church had been drifting away from the biblical gospel, and Martin Luther's 95 Theses began a movement that restored that simple gospel back to the church. Four hundred ninety seven years later the world needs to hear this message again. Enjoy reading!

1872 painting by Ferdinand Pauwels

By Kevin Smead

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the church house door in Wittenberg, Germany. The Ninety-Five Theses were an invitation for the leaders of the Catholic Church to debate the practice of the selling of indulgences (i.e. forgiveness for money, also called “letters of pardon” in the Theses). The Catholic Church taught that there was a treasury of merit in heaven consisting of the good works of Jesus, mother Mary, the apostles, and the other saints. They also taught that the Pope could open that treasury of merit and apply it to those who purchased indulgences from the church. Martin Luther, from his studies in the Holy Scripture, had learned how unbiblical this practice really was. Here are a few extracts from the 95 Theses:

  1. They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon.
  2. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.
  3. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences, but God’s wrath. . .
  4. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons.
  5. The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the indulgence commissary or the pope himself were to stake his soul upon it.
  6. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.
  7. To say that the cross emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up by the preachers of indulgences, is of equal worth with the cross of Christ, is blasphemy.
  8. Such questions as the following: “Why does the pope not empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and for the sake of desperate souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church? The former reasons would be most just, while the latter is most trivial.”

The Ninety-Five Thesis were just the beginning for Martin Luther. He later broke with the Catholic Church entirely because of his complete rejection of the Pope’s authority. He then spent his life preaching the doctrines that have now come to be called “The Five Solas of the Reformation” – which are as follows:

  1. Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone is the ultimate authority for the people of God. Luther famously declared – “My conscience is bound by the Word of God.” He taught that those who imposed non-biblical rules and regulations on the consciences of God’s people were to be regarded as the enemies of God.
  2. Solus Christus – or Christ alone. Luther faithfully adhered to the biblical teaching which says that there is only one Mediator between God and man. He rejected the idea that salvation in any way comes by the merit or intercession of the saints. Only the merits of Christ, imputed to the believer, avail for salvation. Christ lived the perfectly holy life which was required by the law, and died an atoning death at Calvary. Jesus Christ is all in all when it comes to salvation. He who has Christ is complete in Him.
  3. Sola fide – Faith alone. The sinner cannot merit the merits of Christ by works but is saved by faith alone. This is the doctrine known as “justification by faith alone.” Luther said that this doctrine was “the standing or falling article of the church.” The essence of the doctrine is that God declares a sinner to be perfect the moment he or she believes the gospel and trust Jesus alone. “Believe and live” is the message of the gospel.
  4. Sola gratia – Grace alone. The word “grace” means “the unmerited favor of God.” All of salvation, from beginning to end, is by the grace of God. Even the faith to believe the good news is a gift from God.
  5. Soli Deo Gloria – Glory to God alone. There is no boasting in the Christian life, for all the glory goes to God. Furthermore, since the Christian does not have to earn salvation for their works, they do all that they do simply for the glory of the God who has saved them.

Martin Luther restored to the church of his day the preaching of the true gospel. The essence of that gospel is found in the following quote: “God does not want to redeem us through our own, but through external righteousness and wisdom; not through one that comes from us and grows in us, but through one that comes to us from the outside; not through one that originates here on earth, but through one that comes from heaven.” What a beautiful, freeing, and liberating gospel. The fact that God accepts sinners based on the “performance of another” is truly the most glorious news that any helpless sinner could ever hear. That we are now to live our lives, not as mercenaries, who seek to merit something for God, but as people who do what they do out of love and gratitude to God, is truly refreshing. This true gospel provides assurance, instills joy in the heart of broken sinners, and gives us the basis to do works that are truly good, instead of merely selfish. The subject of good works is one that found much attention in the ministry of Martin Luther. It may sound paradoxical, but I have never read anyone who spoke more against good works, and yet more for good works. He said plenty against good works in the area of justification. You must reject good works and performances in this crucial area of your acceptance with God. But when it came to loving God and your neighbor, he said plenty in favor of good works. This wonderful balance is found in the following quote: “If you find a work of yours, which you think you need for your salvation, stamp it under your feet, guard yourself as in the presence of all the devils, and never rest until you are delivered from such a spirit or work, and strive that your life may be useful and serviceable not to your, but only to your neighbor’s need.”

Martin Luther went on to:

  • Write hymns of the faith that continue to bless many people today
  • Translate the Bible into the vernacular language (i.e. the language of the common people)
  • Orchestrate missions that rescued nuns and monks from convents and monasteries
  • Marry a runaway nun named Katarina Von Bora. He once said that he got married for three reasons: to please his father, to leave on record his testimony concerning the virtue and beauty of marriage, and to make the Pope and the devil mad.
  • Preach sermons and write books that today fill 55 volumes. It is said that his writings are so vast that it would take an average person his or her entire life, writing ten hours a day, just to transcribe it all.

 

It is not enough that there was a Reformation back in 1517. Reformation is also something we need today. There are many people who have never heard that the immaculate life of Jesus and his atoning death are enough to save them. So many people have never been told that faith in Christ alone makes them acceptable in the sight of God. Therefore, they labor under a spirit of works and never have peace in their heart – they are trusting in a false gospel. Furthermore, there are still churches today and religious movements that bind the consciences of believers with a host of unbiblical rules and regulation that cloud the gospel and practically make it of none effect. The “five solas of the Reformation” have to be continually reasserted. Moreover, our own consciences often come back under the law and we live in self condemnation and defeat. We must be daily set free by the grace of the gospel and fix our attention upon Christ alone. When we live under the power of the flesh, and our own human effort, we are not pleasing to God. Only when we are living as God’s free ones - serving Him voluntarily and lovingly, rather than out of slavish fear and dread – are we pleasing to God. As Charles Spurgeon said, a slavish dread of God is the next best thing to hating him. Only an understanding of His gracious love in Christ can lead us to love God. As it is written, “We love Him because He first loved us. May it be so to His glory! SOLI DEO GLORIA