Justification by Faith Alone vs. Trick or Treat!1
Today is Halloween. I hope that you all survive. But October 31st should be remembered for something far more significant, indeed, something that in God’s providence changed the course of human history. Continue reading . . .
[I wrote this article several years ago, but thought it might be good if we revisited the subject on October 31!]
Today is Halloween. I hope that you all survive. But October 31st should be remembered for something far more significant, indeed, something that in God’s providence changed the course of human history.
It was on October 31st in the year 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg and in doing so launched (without intending to) what we know as the Protestant Reformation.
Luther was born on November 10, 1483, at Eisleben in Prussian Saxony. He died in the same city while passing through it on February 18, 1546. He was a contemporary of Michelangelo who was born in 1475 and painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 1512.
After the Reformation began, Luther was frequently slandered by his Roman Catholic opponents. In particular, it was said that Luther's mother had sex with the devil and that Martin was their offspring!
At the age of 18 he entered the University of Erfurt and received his Bachelor of Arts in 1502 and Master of Arts in 1505. Following his father's wishes, he prepared for a career in law. However, two events changed the course of his life. First, he was shocked by the sudden death of a close friend. Second, shortly after this, on July 2, 1505, he was caught in a violent thunderstorm near Erfurt and was so frightened that he fell to the ground and cried out: "Help, beloved Saint Anna! I will become a monk!" [Anna was the patron saint of miners and people in distress in thunderstorms.] He immediately joined the Augustinian convent at Erfurt, much to his father's dismay.
Two of Luther’s brothers died of the bubonic plague (the Black Death) about the time he entered the monastery. Another brother (James) survived and visited Martin in Wittenberg in the 1530s. We know little else of his family.
Luther was a pious Roman Catholic and worshipped the Virgin Mary. He undertook the most menial and humiliating duties hoping to subdue his pride. He begged in the streets, swept the floor, and subjected his body to rigorous asceticism and self-inflicted torture. He was obsessed with finding the peace of salvation but repeatedly failed. He was ordained to the priesthood on May 2, 1507, at which time he performed his first Mass. Upon being instructed by his teachers that a priest actually holds "his God" in his hands and offers him to others, Luther doubted his worthiness to perform such a task. He trembled at the altar and had to be assisted in completing the ceremony.
Luther’s confessor in the monastery was a man named Johannes Staupitz, to whom Luther would later attribute many of his theological insights. Luther so often went to Staupitz for confession that the latter admonished him to stop it until he had something really sinful to confess!
His teaching career began in 1508 at Wittenberg. During the winter of 1510-11 he went to Rome, a city then filled with enthusiasm for the Renaissance but indifferent to religion. Luther was appalled at the unbelief and immorality of the papacy, an impression that undoubtedly was instrumental in his conversion. Upon his return home he said: "Some people took money to Rome and brought back indulgences. I, like a fool, carried onions there and brought back garlic." By this Luther meant "that he had carted his despair to Rome, hoping to be rid of it, but had come away with an even deeper despair" (Thompson, 390).
According to the testimony of his son, Paul (who claims to have heard it from his father in 1541), it was during his visit to Rome that Luther ascended on bended knees the 28 steps of the famous Scala Santa (allegedly the steps taken from the Judgment Hall in Jerusalem), kissing the places where Christ's blood was said to have fallen, all in order to secure for himself the indulgence attached to this ascetic performance since the days of Pope Leo IV in 850. Suddenly, struck by the futility of his actions, he arose and returned to Germany.
He received his doctorate in 1512 and began teaching the Bible. From 1513 to 1515 he taught Psalms and from 1515 to 1517 he taught Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. During this period his feelings of utter inadequacy before God intensified. He was haunted with the realization that a God of infinite righteousness could never be satisfied with his meager efforts at purity. After his conversion he looked back on his years as a monk and described his struggle:
"I was a good monk, and kept my rule so strictly that I venture to say that if ever a monk could get to heaven by monkery, I would have gotten there. All my companions in the monastery who knew me, would bear me out in this. For if I had gone on much longer, I would have martyred myself to death, what with vigils, prayers, readings, and other works."
"For I hoped that I might find peace of conscience with fasts, prayers, vigils, with which I miserably afflicted my body; but the more I sweated it out like this, the less peace and tranquility I knew."
"The more holy, the more uncertain I became."
"After vigils, fasts, prayers, and other exercises of the toughest kind, with which as a monk I afflicted myself almost to death, yet the doubt was left in my mind, and I thought, Who knows whether these things are pleasing to God?"
His conversion came in 1516-17, about which he wrote the following:
"Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God. . . . At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words (Romans 1:17), namely, 'In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, He who through faith is righteous shall live.' Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered Paradise itself through open gates" (Preface to the Latin Writings, LW, 34:336-37).
Needless to say, Luther's discovery of biblical grace and personal conversion radically altered his view of the RC papacy. The gospel, Luther argued, repudiates "the wicked idea of the entire kingdom of the pope, the teaching that a Christian man must be uncertain about the grace of God toward him. If this opinion stands, then Christ is completely useless. . . . Therefore the papacy is a veritable torture chamber of consciences and the very kingdom of the devil" (LW 26:387).
So, what prompted his 95 theses? In order to finance the rebuilding of St. Peter's church in Rome, Popes Julius II and Leo X sanctioned the indiscriminate sale of indulgences. In the language of Rome, “indulgentia” is a term for amnesty or remission of punishment, in particular, the remission of the temporal (not eternal) punishment for sin on the condition that one perform specified good works and make generous financial contributions to Rome. Only God can forgive the eternal punishment of sin, but the sinner must still endure the temporal punishment for sin, either in this life or in purgatory. This latter penalty was under the control of the papacy and priesthood. Thus, for a price, the church can reduce both the degree and duration of punishment in purgatory, both for you and your deceased loved ones who are already there!
Leading the sale of indulgences in Germany was a Dominican monk, well-known for his immorality and drunkenness, by the name of Johann Tetzel. He began his trade on the border of Saxony, at Juterbog, just a few hours from Wittenberg. Tetzel was particularly crude and mercenary in his tactics. He used poetic phrases to highlight the benefit of indulgences. For example,
"When the coin in the coffer doth ring,
The soul out of purgatory doth spring."
"Indulgences are the most precious and the most noble of God's gifts. . . . Come and I will give you letters, all properly sealed, by which even the sins that you intend to commit may be pardoned. . . . But more than this, indulgences avail not only for the living but for the dead. . . . Priest! Noble! Merchant! Wife! Youth! Maiden! Do you not hear your parents and your other friends who are dead, and who cry from the bottom of the abyss: We are suffering horrible torments! A trifling alms would deliver us; you can give it, and you will not! "
It was difficult for the people to resist Tetzel's ingenious appeals to both selfishness and love for one's parents. The story is told that after Tetzel made a large sum of money from the sale of indulgences in Leipzig a man approached him and asked if he could buy an indulgence for a future sin he planned on committing. Tetzel said yes, and they agreed on a price. Later the man attacked and robbed Tetzel, explaining that this was the future sin he had in mind!
Tetzel had a "fee schedule" for the forgiveness of sins:
Witchcraft - 2 ducats
Polygamy - 6 ducats
Murder - 8 ducats
Sacrilege - 9 ducats
Perjury - 9 ducats
Luther lost his patience when a stumbling drunkard handed him a certificate of indulgence as warrant for his inebriated condition.
Indulgences could also be obtained by viewing or venerating certain religious relics. Luther's prince, Frederick the Wise, owned one of the largest relic collections in the area, over 19,000 pieces, worth more than 1,900,000 days' indulgence! Frederick's collection included a piece of the burning bush, soot from the fiery furnace, milk from Mary's breast, and a piece of Jesus' crib, just to name a few. Cardinal Albrecht's collection of relics was worth 39,245,120 days' indulgence!
Infuriated by this blasphemous turn of events, at noon on October 31, 1517, Luther posted to the door of the castle-church at Wittenberg, 95 theses or propositions on the subject of indulgences and invited a public discussion on the topic. There was little initial response, but rapid circulation of the theses (entitled "Disputation to explain the Virtue of Indulgences") was certain to stir things up. Schaff writes this of the theses:
"They are no protest against the Pope and the Roman Church, or any of her doctrines, not even against indulgences, but only against their abuse. They expressly condemn those who speak against indulgences (Th. 71), and assume that the Pope himself would rather see St. Peter's Church in ashes than have it built with the flesh and blood of his sheep (Th. 50). They imply belief in purgatory. They nowhere mention Tetzel. They are silent about faith and justification, which already formed the marrow of Luther's theology and piety. He wished to be moderate, and had not the most distant idea of a separation from the mother church. When the Theses were republished in his collected works (1545), he wrote in the preface: I allow them to stand, that by them it may appear how weak I was, and in what a fluctuating state of mind, when I began this business. I was then a monk and a mad papist, and so submerged in the dogmas of the Pope that I would have readily murdered any person who denied obedience to the Pope."
Over two years later, on June 15, 1520, the papal decree Exsurge Domine (“Rise up O Lord”), excommunicated Luther from the Roman Catholic Church, called for the burning of his books, and condemned the whole of the Reformation. Luther responded by throwing the document into the fire (Dec. 10, 1520), as he spoke these words: "As thou [the Pope] hast vexed the Holy One of the Lord, may the eternal fire vex thee!"
James Atkinson writes: "A thrill went through Europe when it learned that an obscure monk, a man with no more weight behind him than his faith in God, had burned a papal bull. It was the fiery signal of emancipation. The individual soul had discovered its true value. If the Reformation can be dated, that date must be 10 December 1520. If eras can be dated, our modern era began at nine o'clock that morning" (197).
Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms on April 17 at 4:00 p.m., where he was to defend himself before Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (then only 19 years old). Said Charles: "It is preposterous that a single monk should be right in his opinion and that the whole of Christianity should be in error a thousand years or more."
He was asked two questions. First, did he acknowledge that the books on the table before him were his? And secondly, would he stand by them or retract what he had written? Luther asked for time to reflect and pray before answering and was granted 24 hours. Here is the text of his request:
"I cannot deny that the books named are mine, and I will never deny any of them: they are all my offspring; and I have written some others which have not been named. But as to what follows, whether I shall reaffirm in the same terms all, or shall retract what I may have uttered beyond the authority of Scripture, -- because the matter involves a question of faith and of the salvation of souls, and because it concerns the Word of God, which is the greatest thing in heaven and on earth, and which we all must reverence, -- it would be dangerous and rash in me to make any unpremeditated declaration, because in unpremeditated speech I might say something less than the fact and something more than the truth; besides, I remember the saying of Christ when He declared, 'Whosoever shall deny Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father which is in heaven, and before His angels.' For these reasons I beg, with all respect, that your Imperial Majesty give me time to deliberate, that I may answer the question without injury to the Word of God and without peril to my own soul."
Returning on April 18, at 6:00 p.m. he delivered this now famous response:
"Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound to the Word of God: I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen!"
Luther left Worms immediately, and the next day was denounced by the Emperor as "a notorious heretic" who must be silenced. Luther was called a criminal who had committed high treason and, in effect, received a death sentence. On May 26th, 1521, the Emperor issued this decree:
"We enjoin you all not to take the aforementioned Martin Luther into your houses, not to receive him at court, to give him neither food nor drink, not to hide him, to afford him no help, following, support, or encouragement, either clandestinely or publicly, through words or works. Where you can get him, seize him and overpower him, you should capture him and send him to us under tightest security."
Of what importance was the Diet of Worms? One author answers:
"The Diet of Worms, Luther's appearance there on the 17th of April, 1521, may be considered as the greatest scene in modern European history; the point, indeed, from which the whole subsequent history of civilization takes its rise. The world's pomp and power sit there, on this hand; on that, stands up for God's truth one man, the poor miner Hans Luther's son. Our petition -- the petition of the whole world to him was: Free us; it rests with thee; desert us not. Luther did not desert us. It is, as we say, the greatest moment in the modern history of men -- English Puritanism, England and its Parliaments, America's vast work these two centuries; French Revolution; Europe and its work everywhere at present -- the germ of it all lay there. Had Luther in that moment done other, it had all been otherwise" (Thomas Carlyle as quoted in P. C. Croll, ed., Tributes to the Memory of Martin Luther [Philadelphia: G. W. Frederick, 1884], pp. 49-50).
So, if you were about to engage in the standard Halloween celebration of Trick or Treat, may I suggest you seize the opportunity this year to declare in heartfelt praise: “Thank you, O Lord, for awakening this simple and sinful monk to the glory of the gospel of justification by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone!”