Biblical precepts and principles are never lost, they are only covered and distorted over human history. When rediscovered, the impact is profound. ♦
Imagine if you saw a church leader selling tokens each week to his congregation with a promise that their purchase can win favor with God. Suppose that these tokens could even be purchased on behalf of dead relatives and friends as a remission of past sins and would be a benefit to them in the afterlife. Then imagine if that church leader gave a sermon with the punch line, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
One would be appalled, and rightly so.
Such was the case in 1517 when a friar named Johann Tetzel was selling “indulgences” near Wittenberg, Germany for the remission of purgatory but also to raise money for constructing St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. A young professor of biblical studies at the University of Wittenberg named Martin Luther was infuriated at the sale of these indulgences. In scholastic tradition of that day, he posted on the church door his Theses on the topic for internal academic debate among other faculty members.
Luther came up with 95 provocative points for discussion, many associated with the issue of earning favor with God via works or performance. Some are as follows:
- (1) Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ in saying, ‘Repent ye,’ intended that the whole life of believers should be penitence.
- (32) Those who believe that, through letters of pardon, they are made sure of their salvation, will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.
- (37) Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has a share of all the benefits of Christ and of the Church, given him by God, even without letters of pardon.
- (62) The true treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.
- (86) Since the pope’s income today is larger than that of the wealthiest of wealthy men, why does he not build this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than the money of indigent believers?
Written in Latin and never meant for public consumption, Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were nevertheless circulated among the populace and sparked the revolution that rocked the world and religious order. The Reformation had begun and, in his lifetime, dormant evangelical Scriptural doctrines resurfaced and changed the Christian Church landscape.
The repercussions still carry over today.
Luther and the Book of Romans
Shortly before posting the 95 Theses, Luther had begun studying the Greek New Testament, specifically the Letter of Paul to the Romans. His studies persuaded him that the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, meant a change of heart, not mere performance of outward works, as theologians of his day defined it.
In his own words Luther writes:
I had been possessed by an unusually ardent desire to understand Paul in his epistle to the Romans…In spite of the ardour of my heart, I was hindered by the unique word in the first chapter: “The righteousness of God…” I hated that word “righteousness of God,” because…I had been taught to understand it philosophically as meaning…the formal or active righteousness according to which God is righteous and punishes sinners and the unjust.
As a monk I led an irreproachable life. Nevertheless I felt that I was a sinner before God…Not only did I not love, but I actually hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.
Day and night I tried to mediate upon the significance of these words…then, finally…I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that gift of God by which a righteous man lives, namely, faith…the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The righteous shall live by faith”…Now I felt as through I had been reborn…
Studying the Book of Romans Today
Recently I had a good friend tell me that he was raised in a church tradition that emphasized works and guilt. He said the ongoing burden of sin and guilt and insufficient good deeds weighed heavy on him his whole life. Even into marriage. His wife finally urged him to read the Book of Romans. He said it was like a massive weight lifted from him, like the character in Pilgrim’s Progress he was weighed down to the depths of his soul with a burden he was unable to rid himself. Like Martin Luther, my friend said he finally felt unfettered and free.
That’s the Good News. We are burdened by the weight of sin. All of us, as None is righteous, no one….All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:10, 23-24). We can’t free ourselves of the burden or buy our way out of it. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
That true step of surrendering faith in Him, not ourselves, is a gift of great substance. A gift for the taking. Then out of that freeing faith springs forth good fruit and good works with Spirit-led vitality and purpose.
Are you works-driven or faith-driven? Have you had a personal Reformation?
For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, “The righteous will live by faith.” – Romans 1:17