We are going back 500 years. to the year 1517 October 31st when a german monk called Martin Luther. Nailed a pamplet - 95 theses - to his churches noticeboard - the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Saxony. This action is said to have kick started what is known as the Protestant reformation
Now, what comes to mind when you hear about the Reformation?
Perhaps you hated history at school and you know nothing about this stuff and you’re not to bothered about whether it stays this way. What on earth does a 500 year old monk have to say to my modern life? It feels very irrelavant. I hope to show that it’s not so please bear with me.
Maybe you do know a bit about the Reformation. You know it was political. Henry VIII took advantage of the unheavals to break with the RC church and start the Church of England thus enabling him to divorce that he didn’t feel like decpitating. That’s the Reformation - the church getting swallowed up into the murky world of politics
Perhaps you know that the Reformation was marked by argument and schism and sometimes and death. Heretics burned at the stake. Monasteries and churches and icons destroyed. Maybe you share the view of the presenter on a recent TV documentary who said, ‘In many ways the Reformation and the bitterness and division it represents reminds us of the worst aspects of our religious instincts.’ Religion is a thing of mystery and claiming to know the truth and challenge other peoples’ perception of the truth only leads to the kinds of extremism and barbarism that blights our world. The reformation was bad news.
Not to mention the fact that wasn’t the Reformation about archaic medieval religious debates about purgatory and indulgences and relics? What on earth does it mean for us??
It’s true that the Reformation started with a debate about Purgatory. Most people at the time believed in purgatory, a place of torment to which Christians went at their death to be purged of their sins before moving on to heaven. The church at the time had some major building projects going on in Rome (we all know how hard it is to fund building projects) and so a trade had grown up around selling indulgences - promises from the pope that gave people time off in purgatory. If you were particularly minted you could buy a plenary or full indulgence and skip the place altogether! Well Martin Luther in Saxony was particularly provoked by an indulgence broker called Friar Johann Tetzel. Tetzel had advertising jingles such as ‘as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.’
Luther’s indignation came from a better understanding of the Bible. Better translations of the Bible were becoming available partly because of the advent of the priniting press but also because of the rise of an academic movement called humanism - a movement back to rediscovering ancient texts including the Bible. The Bible was being taken out of the hands of a corrupt church. And Luther’s 95 theses began to represent a challenge of authority - that the church was not the Supreme authority in matters of faith, rather that place belonged to Scripute Alone. Sola Scriptura was the first rallying cry of a Reformation that was a rediscovery of the Bible!
It’s also true that Henry VIII jumped on the bandwagon of this Protest (from which the word Protestant comes) against the authority of the church as an opportunity to do his own thing. But there was more going on here in England. Thomas Cranmer. Henry’s Archbishop of Canterbury founded the church of England on his Book of Common Prayer which was chock full of new theology of the Reformation. The reformation was a rediscovery of God/
Finally, it’s true that violence and discord and death were part of the Reformation and without doubt leaders of the reformation were sometimes guilty of acting towards those with whom they disagreed in ways that deny the gospel they professed.
But… these were not quarrels about small different opinions. At the heart of the reformation was a rediscovery from the Bible of God’s revelation for how we can know him and how we can be right with him eternally.
this is not a small thing. if our culture thinks it is, it shows how totally obsessed with the material and present world our culture is. For the heart of the Reformation takes us to the very reason why we exist and questions of our etrenal well being. How do we know God and get right with him?
This is why people gave their lives to speed the Reformation - like William Tyndle who had translated the Bible into English. It mattered… and it still does
A culture that blindly focusses on the material and the now at the expense of the spiritual and the eternal desperately needs the gospel of the reformation
And it’s precisely because we are a church in a culture that doesn’t believe in sin and doesn’t value truth.. and doesn’t focus on the eternal that we desperately need to be brought back to the discoveries of the Reformation and to the heart of God.
At the heart of the reformation was a rediscovery from the Bible of God’s revelation for how we can know him and how we can be right with him eternally. The theological term for this is Justification. How can human beings be justified before God, accepted by him as righteous
Martin Luther said that Justification was the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.
Luther’s discovery was that Justification must be by grace alone and through faith alone.
2 more of the rallying cries of the Reformation.
Justification by grace alone through faith alone
Martin Luther was born in Saxony in Germany in 1486
He studied briefly as a Lawyer but after a conversion experience he entered the monastery and became an Augustinian Monk. He was unbelievably zealous. In fact he surpassed all others in his observance of fasting and prayer and confession. Medieval theology taught that only sins that had been confessed could be forgiven and so Luther would soend literally hours in the confession box exhausting his confessors searching his soul for unconfessed sin. For all his righteous endeavours Luther could never find any assurance of wellbeing before God. When a close friend died and Luther took his funeral, Luther became terrified of the righteous judgement of God. He could never do enough.
In 1512 aged 26 he was sent by his order to be lecturer of Biblical studies at the New University of Wittenberg. And it was while lecturing on the Psalms and Galatians and particularly Romans that Luther came to a fresh understanding of the Christian gospel.
One key moment was Luther’s so called ‘Tower experience’ Luther had been musing on Romans 1v17 “In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith. As it is written “the righteous shall live by faith””
Luther hated this verse; in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. How could the righteousness or justice of God be gospel? How could the judgement of God be good news??
But Luther began to see the righteousness of God revelealed in the gospel not simply as a quality of God but as a GIFT FROM GOD by which we can live. The righteousness of God us the righteousness he gives to us so that we may be righteous before him!
What did Luther mean and how did he get here?
Well Luther’s new insight came from
A new understanding of sin
A new understanding of Grace
A new understanding of sin.
Actually it wasn’t so much a new discovery as a rediscovery of something that had been lost. Luther rediscovered the teachings on sin of the 4th C North African Bishop and early church Father St Augustine of Hippo.
The medieval view of Sin was that sin was a weakness of being, a lack of good, a sickness that needed healing. That’s very similar to our culture’s view of sin isn’t it? We are a bit bad. We slip up now and again. But it’s basically a cosmetic problem. We might need some positive thinking to heal ourselves and become our best self.
Desiderus Erasmus was the leading humanist scholar of Luther’s day. In his book On the Freedom of the Will he taught that the problem of sin was basically a problem of spiritual laziness; of sloth. We need God’s grace to free our will to please him.
Well Luther discovered, as he returned to the Bible and Augustine’s commentaries, a very different, much deeper and more radical understanding of Sin.
Romans 3v10 “There is no one righteous, not even one;
11 there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good, not even one.”
Luther’s discovery from the scriptures was that sin was not sickness but rebellion against God
The problem of our sin is not cosmetic but goes as deep as it possibly can: all the way down to our hearts, shaping what we want and love.
Luther answered Erasmus’s on the freedom of the will, with his, On the bondage of the will, probably his greatest work. Here Luther argued that out intuitive sense of complete freedom with regard to decision making is an illusion. Yes we feel free - we do always do what we want. But… we cannot choose what to want. Underneath our wills, directing and governing our choices lie our hearts with all their inclinations and desires. And our hearts are naturally inclined away from God, we will never choose him. our hearts love darkness. We choose sin because that is what we want. So Luther spoke of slavery to sin, addiction, we are like rotten trees that can only produce rotten fruit - and of course we are powerless to save oursleves. Even our righteous works are not for God but for us!
The reformation’s deep view of sin is rather like the proverbial ugly duckling
Our culture hates the idea that we are rotten to the core - it’s a recipe for self hatred and we might be tempted to be embarassed of such a view. But only if I see that my plight is so bad that i cannot fix myself will i look outside myself for help and find the freedom that Christ brings. The ugly duckling is really a swan.
A new understanding of sin
A new understanding of Grace
In medieval theology, salvation was by grace. You couldn’t save yourself. Your sin needed to be healed and your soul helped by grace. And Grace was seen as a ‘thing’ at work within you; a substance or a force or a fuel administered, or imparted, through the sacraments of the church - of which there were 7 - baptism, holy communion, confirmation, confession, marriage, holy orders and the anointing of the sick. Or infused through prayers to the Saints or to Mary ‘full of grace”. So Church was a bit like a hospital with the Priest a pharmacist dispensing grace as medicine to the poorly or cans of redbull to the spiritually lazy to make them righteous.
Luther’s growing understanding of grace, needless to say, was very very different.
Grace was not a ‘thing’ at work within us but God’s unmerited favour towards us whereby the righteousness of Jesus is gifted to us not as stuff being infused into us that gradually changes our state but as righteousness imputed/given to us that immediately changes our STATUS
Our sins are not removed but - somehow, and we’ll see how in our next talk - they are no longer counted against us. Justification is not about God gradually making us righteous but here and now declaring us righteous. It is language not so much of the hospital as the law courts. Justification is not a process of healing towards God but a declaration that we have a right positive standing before God now.
21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in[h] Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Did you notice that it’s freely given? Salvation is a gift from first to last. We do nothing. It’s not our works plus the essential help of God’s grace. It’s salvation by grace ALONE - all of grace. We contribute nothing. We just receive the gift by faith, by simple trust which itself is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Justification by grace alone, through faith alone.
Ill. imagine a painter gives you one of her paintings, framed and ready to hang in your house. And before you do so you proceed to break open the frame and get a biro to add a bit of shading to the sky!
Or imagine if you’re invited to a dinner party and the meal is served to you and you take it back to the kitchen to do a bit more work on the sauce
No - when you are given something as a finished, completed gift - The creator has laid down her paint brush, has removed his apron and said this cannot be improved on – it is not only needless but offensive to attempt your own contribution.
salvation is a gift from first to last There is nothing you and can do to contribute. In fact to seek to make a contribution is to undermine the finished work. To add is to subtract.
And yet we do. We do treat grace like a substance that assists our efforts. We do think that God favours us when we’ve read our bible and prayed or because we are a good person, do noble things, or are moral. And God frowns upon us when we’re bad and immoral. Don’t you catch yourself thinking – ‘I don’t really deserve that God should take any interest in me today, because i haven’t been a very good Christian of late..’ – as if we ever deserved anything from God! As if it wasn’t all of grace.
By nature we’re predisposed to reject grace in favour of our works because of our innate pride. You see if salvation is all of grace then all of the glory must go to God. But we are naturally prone to exalt ourselves – surely it is really about me my contribution: God likes me when i’m good, doesn’t when I’m bad. But no, it’s not about us. It is all about God and his free grace towards needy undeserving sinners.
No contribution. Humbles us ..but of course it’s the most wonderful news
and leads to our second glorious point
imagine that you owe a huge amount of money. you have run up a debt that you can never repay and to your shame it has been discovered. you stand before the judge helpless. you know that your debt means your life is ruined, your family is ruined. you will spend the rest of your life in debtors prison ..the rest of eternity..
Imagine how you feel. Suicidal, utterly helpless.
then imagine that your debt is cancelled. it no longer exists. no longer hangs over you. it is gone, completely.. nothing to pay. the world has changed. everything has changed, you can barely believe it
how would you feel?
There is a consistent testimony down through the years that those who have accepted that God saves by grace alone have found the message to be one of unutterably sweet liberation.
Listen to Martin Luther on his discovery of Grace alone:
‘I felt that i was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates’
or william tyndale speaking of the gospel of grace as “merry, glad and joyful tidings. that maketh a man’s heart glad and maketh him sing, dance and leap for joy.”
or John Bunyan the 17th C author of pilgrims progress on discovering that his righteousness was a gift of God and not of himself, he exclaimed, “Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed, I was loosed from my affliction”
My chains fell off, wrote John Wesley in his famous hymn, my heart was free I rose went forth and followed thee.
Justification by grace alone through faith alone
The only message of true liberation that has the power to make human beings unfurl and flourish
Next week in Reformation talks.
Still some fundamental questions remain:
First. How is it possible? How does it work that God can just give us righteousness and count it as ours? As if righteousness is some kind of ‘thing’? It feels very abstract, something just ‘made-up’? and as such might create some doubts in our minds. Am I right in God’s eyes? Am I?
Second. Does grace mean that sin no longer matters? With salvation in the bag might people feel we can just ‘keep on sinning that grace may increase’ - after all I like sinning and God likes forgiving.. Does the way I live really matter?
Well there is a way of understanding how God gives me righteousness AND the way we live as Christians does matter. The answer to both those questions will be seen in our next talk and our next SOLA of the reformation. Salvation is not an abstract legal transaction, salvation is in CHRIST ALONE
tune in next week ….