Five hundred years ago on the eve of All Saints’ Day, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk from the University of Wittenberg in Germany nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the college church proposing a discussion of the theology of indulgences. He criticized the selling of pardons by the church to raise money to build St. Peter’s Church in Rome on the grounds that they were against Scripture, reason and tradition. The pope claimed the authority “to shut the gates of hell and open the door to paradise”. Luther challenged the pope’s authority. In subsequent arguments he exposed the corruption of the medieval Roman church and its claim to secular power.
He was motivated by his own search for God’s pardon and peace. Despite his earnest efforts to earn God’s salvation he found himself no nearer to God. He discovered that it was not a matter of God being far from man, and man having to strive to reach him. The reverse was true. God in Christ had come all the way to find him. In his study of the Letter to the Romans he found that “in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith, from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” (Rom 1:17)
This discovery by Luther and the rest of the Protestant Reformers touched the exposed nerve of both the hierarchy of the church and the everyday practice of Christianity. The Reformers held that the believer came into direct relation and union with Christ, as the one, and only and all-sufficient source of grace. His grace is available to the penitent believer by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the Word of God. This did away with the need for Mary as mediator, the clergy as priests, and the departed saints as intercessors. From Luther’s rediscovery of the direct and personal relationship between Christ and the believer came the three great principles of the Reformation.
First, the authority of Scripture alone as containing all things necessary and sufficient for salvation. Under prosecution by Emperor Charles V Luther stated, “Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture or by manifest reasoning I stand convicted by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything. For to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
“Luther’s defense was not a modern plea for the supremacy of the individual conscience or free will. It was, rather, an entreaty for Scripture’s supremacy. In short, Luther at Worms illustrates the authority of God’s Word as the rightful captor of our conscience….” (Chris Castaldo), not a church tradition, or hierarchy, or the civil power.
Before Luther the Bible in Latin was hardly ever read or understood. Luther translated it into vernacular German, which enabled people to see for themselves the truth of his arguments. The invention of printing allowed the Bible to be circulated more widely than ever before. William Tyndale published the New Testament in English in 1525 and Miles Coverdale the whole Bible in 1535. The church hierarchy tried to suppress the Bibles, and even burn them, but they were unsuccessful. The Reformers rejected only those doctrines and ceremonies for which there was no clear basis in Scripture. They rejected the authority of the pope, the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Mass, the view of the mass as a sacrifice, shrines, relics, veneration of images, purgatory and prayers for the dead, the necessity of private confession to a priest, celibacy of the clergy, the sale of church offices, and the use of Latin in worship.
The second great principle of the Reformation was salvation by the free and undeserved grace of Christ. This came to be known as ‘justification by faith only.’ The New Testament taught that by the action of God alone, in the death and resurrection of Christ, the believer was called from sin to a new life in Christ. Good works did not contribute to salvation but were the fruits of salvation in the power of the Spirit. “For by grace are we saved through faith, and that not of ourselves, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph 2:8-9).
The third great Reformation principle was termed the ‘priesthood of all believers.’ There was no precedent in the New Testament or in the early church for the priest as mediator. Such a role was not part of the gospel. Nothing in Scripture supported the secular power of the priest. There were no longer two levels of Christians, spiritual and lay. There was one gospel, one justification by faith, one status before God common to all men and women, clergy and laity. Protestants opposed the idea that authority rested in an exclusive priesthood. People were freed from their vague fear of priests.
The New Testament called all people to serve God in their vocations, whether father, mother or farmer, scholar or pastor, servant or soldier. Everyone had the right and duty to read the Bible for themselves. Every Christian was expected to take a responsible part in the government and public affairs of both church and society. Such thinking helped give rise to the democratic states of Europe and North America.
The invisible church was the true church known only to God, and the visible church was organized by men. The church consisted of all those called by God to salvation.
These three principles are still relevant and valid for us today. We need to believe in the divine authority of Scripture in an age when all authority in faith and morals is being rejected. We are in a cultural and civilizational crisis in the West when the commandments are being ignored and forgotten and the pursuit of happiness is worshipped through immorality and materialism. We need the authority of God’s Word written more and more to keep us on a straight path.
It is claimed that the arguments against Christianity arise out of doubt. This is a total misunderstanding. They arise out of insubordination, reluctance to obey, mutiny against all authority. Therefore, until now the battle against objections has been shadow-boxing, because it has been intellectual combat with doubt instead of ethical combat against mutiny. (S. Kierkegaard, JP 1:359)
We need to affirm our need for salvation by the free and undeserved grace of Christ in an age when pride in human achievements is boasted about, and people refuse to admit that they are sinners. Instead of the grace of Christ being foundational to our human identity the culture rejects the uniqueness of the Savior and seeks for salvation in the fulfillment of human potential through political and social experiments. Unless we admit that we are sinners in need of salvation we will seek for hollow substitutes. Christ stands at the door of our hearts knocking for entry but we must open that door in order for him to come into our lives.
We need to affirm that all Christian disciples are called to be priests in the world. We are all part of a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet 2:9). We all have a divine vocation. We are not dependent upon human organizations, national, social, racial, ethnic or gender identity groups for our dignity and direct access to God. We are to live lives worthy of the calling we have received according to the gifts God has given us without fear or favor. We are here on earth to fulfill God’s purpose for our lives, to serve him through loving our neighbor. As Martin Luther famously wrote, “A Christian is the most free of all, and subject to none; a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, subject to everyone.”
(Some material by Professor James Atkinson, Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity)