Friday, November 3, 2017

Martin Luther (Ephesians 2:8-10) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Today we commemorate the launching of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation.  The message of the reformation is just as relevant today as it was then.  On October 31, 1517, 500 years ago, a Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther, nailed 95 theses on the Castle Door, in Wittenberg Germany.  The 95 theses were protests or criticisms of the theology and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.  I know you are very interested in what all of these theses protested, so let’s get started, number 1.

Luther didn’t set out to break with the church, but to simply reform it.  He was surprised by the widespread reaction to his public protest.  He had touched a nerve in the lives of the people and his reputation spread quickly throughout Germany and Europe.  Opposition from the Pope and the church in Rome followed.  They said: “There is a wild boar ravaging in the vineyard of the Lord.”  The Roman Church demanded that Luther recant his errors, and when Martin refused, a tear in the Church, a schism in Christianity occurred, which has lasted 500 years.  The Protestant church was born.

In Luther’s day God was pictured as being angry and vengeful because of human sin.  God is good and humanity is sinful.  People were afraid of God.   Scripture says the wages of sin is death.  Human sin, the sins of idolatry and disobedience, had dishonored, had disrespected, had blasphemed God the creator.  Even Jesus seemed to be a harsh judge to Luther who sent the saved to heaven and the damned to hell.   Luther was afraid for his soul and tried to appease God, to become acceptable to God.  He tried to earn God’s favor and forgiveness.  He fasted until his cheeks caved in, he performed good works for the poor, he crawled on his knees up the church steps until his knees bled, he confessed his sins for six hours at a stretch, but in the end Luther felt hopeless, helpless, and afraid that God would not accept him and forgive him, and welcome Luther into heaven.

Luther felt like the nominal Christian who lived with the philosophy that his good works would be more than enough to get him into heaven. One night he dreamed of the last judgment, when all humanity stood before God.  He was standing directly behind Mother Teresa.  He overheard God say, “Teresa, I was really expecting a lot more out of you.”

So Luther turned to the Scriptures.  Luther studied the book of Romans.  He read verses such as the following: “The gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who have faith; The righteous shall live by faith; Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,  God proves his love for us in that while were still sinners Christ died for us, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus;  If God is for us, who can be against us; I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord; God sent Jesus Christ, that through his sacrifice, he took the punishment for our sins.”  In the letter of Ephesians Luther read: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”   We are saved not by works, but by God’s grace through faith.

What is grace?  It is like when I was serving a church in Colorado.  I had just finished moderating a long session meeting and I was eager to get home.  You elders know what I’m talking about.  It was about 10:00 pm and I was driving along a narrow frontage road on my way home.   No one was on the road.   Suddenly I saw flashing lights in my rear view mirror.   The police officer pulled me over and asked:  “Do you know why I stopped you?”  I said: “Yes, I was speeding.  I just was on my way home after moderating a session meeting at my church.”  He didn’t say anything.  He finished writing the ticket. I signed it and as he was tearing it out of the book, he ripped the ticket in half.  I don’t know if it was on purpose or was an accident.  He looked at me and said:  “This must be your night, be safe.”  He walked away without giving me a ticket.  That is grace.

Luther heard that word of grace and knew that God had spoken to him through the scriptures.  He was transformed by his understanding that the gospel was good news, joyful news of what God has already done in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to make us right with God, not what we have to do in order to get right with God.  All we need do is respond, that is, repent of our sins and believe the good news of the gospel.  God has saved us in Jesus.  All we need do is accept God’s salvation in Jesus Christ through faith.   After that God will begin His work of sanctification, of transforming our hearts, souls, minds and behavior, to make us more and more like Christ.

This revolutionary understanding of the gospel caused Luther to begin looking into the practices of the church which had long troubled him, and the unity of the church of the Middle Ages was broken.  Luther translated the Latin Bible into German, the language of the people, because he wanted Germans to read God’s word in their own language.  He wrote hymns like A Mighty Fortress is our God and carols like Away in a Manger.  He denied that there was such a place as purgatory or such a requirement as penance, because he could not find biblical grounds for these doctrines.  He said the Bible is our authority, not the pope.  Popes are fallible.  The church should pattern its life and its theology on the Bible, on scripture.  And if any church doctrines or practices are not supported by scripture they should be stopped.

The Reformation began with a simple act, nailing 95 theses or protests against the Roman church.  About half of them were protests against the church’s practice of selling indulgences.   What is an indulgence?  An indulgence is: "A way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for one’s sins."  The Catholic Church declared that God forgives sins when you confess your sins to a priest.  But even though you are forgiven, you still had to be punished for those sins. You had to do penance.   Indulgences were a means of taking care of the penalties for your sins.  They would reduce or eliminate the punishment you had to undergo after your sins were forgiven.   It is called the doctrine of penance.

Gradually, the practice of indulgences became corrupt.  Indulgences were sold.  They began as the priest telling you to say certain prayers like Hail Mary Mother of God a certain number of times to pay the penalty for your sins, to doing good works to pay for your sins, to buying indulgences in exchange for your punishment.   The Roman church said indulgences could reduce the time spent in purgatory for family, relatives and friends who had died and were being purged for their sins, or reduce or eliminate the time you would spend in purgatory after you died, or to move family members who had died from purgatory to heaven.   Indulgences were sold to purchase salvation from damnation.  Indulgences were used to raise money for the church, to buy land, to build cathedrals, like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or to fund the Crusades.  Churches were accumulating more wealth at the expense of the people.

Luther saw these abuses and decided to take action.  Here are just three of Luther’s protests out of the 95. He writes: “Why does not the Pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?” “They are the enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid altogether the preaching of the Word of God in some churches in order that indulgences may be preached in others.”  “Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word.

The Message of Luther, the message of the gospel, the message of the Bible is repent and believe the good news of the free gift of God’s forgiving and transforming love in Jesus Christ.  God is gracious.  His salvation is the greatest gift we can ever receive.  In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen!

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